The Looks of the Absent13 Sep 2022
Original text in Farsi by Mehrdad Mirzaie
Translated to English by Parichehr Ghanami & Soheila Habibi
What should an artist do? When, where, how, and for what purpose? What methods does he/she use to debate the problem and present it? Can there be any other way than common ways, accepted frameworks, and conventional worldviews? "Tehran Monoxide" is one of these projects. Rather than focusing on the performance, this artistic-social movement emphasizes the point of view. Negar Farajiani created this project based on her everyday experiences; investigating the relationship between the city and her child and the restrictions Tehran has created. The project looks at the polluted city that houses millions of people. A narrative of the absent residents of this city is presented here, such as artists deported to galleries and children and teenagers who have no place in this city. The "Tehran Monoxide" project is an uncommon flow that has been exposed to the public in unusual places and different years. Anywhere can host these programs, from the wall of a pharmacy to the classrooms of a school. Anywhere can be a potential place for displaying artwork. Furthermore, the exhibited works don't fit into the usual art formats or definitions of the art world. By going beyond what is common, Negar Farajiani offers a new interpretation of the production of artwork; production of look. With such an approach, "concept" and "looking at that concept" become important. Immediately and from the very first spark of the idea in the artist's mind, the "Tehran Monoxide" project demonstrates a remarkable aspect; one that is often overlooked when creating artwork: dialog. In this project, not only are all locations considered opportunities to display the work but also children and teenagers have the opportunity to record and show their perspectives. Leaving monologues behind, the outcast take to the field in their way. The following text is a conversation between Negar Farajiani and Mehrdad Mirzaei, describing the details of the "Tehran Monoxide" project.
This conversation is more than learning about, approaching, and understanding the "Tehran Monoxide" project. It's a sort of historical readout; a readout of the intervening act in the existing situation and challenging Iranian artistic society's approaches during the late 2000s. (Although part of the point of view is limited to artistic events in Negar Farajiani's project, there are social, political, and educational issues that cannot be ignored.) At that time, Negar Farjiani was not the first person who actively worked in the field of art in this way. But after a decade, the Tehran Monoxide project is one of the first examples of such an approach finding a definite place in Iranian art: curatorial project.
I was searching among all the words exchanged during the conversation for the roots of the artist's encounter with the problem and idea that have become her field project. It is Farajiani's therapeutic approach to the idea and problem that catches my attention the most; it came from her personal life, more related to being a mother than being an artist. As for the word "therapeutic", the word "curating" is derived from the root "cure" - a word that could describe Negar Farajiani's action; Curing an existing circumstance. As she describes the events, I notice that she starts by carefully observing the patient (existing circumstances). To gain a clearer vision of what is going on, she seeks the help of her companions, i.e. family, friends, or members of the artistic community. But I do not find hope in her words that she was searching for a cure, and here is where my mind concludes its contradictions. The project has lasted more than ten years.
In Farjiani's choices, we see the significance of her look, action, and approach. Probably, the curated project as we know it today in Iranian art didn't exist in that year. There have certainly been parallel currents and similar events taking place; As we speak with the artist, we gain a better understanding of these choices, some of which were intuitive, how much they were outside the existing flow, and how much they were just an alternative way to seek liberation rather than becoming trapped and giving in to the existing conditions.
I consider "Tehran Monoxide" a curatorial project; perhaps this is the most significant and special feature of this project. During this decade, events are put together like pieces of a puzzle, giving the audience a sense of the historical context of "deterioration". After this long conversation that I anticipate will continue in the future, Farjiani's aesthetic choices in artwork, like fabrics, photographs, and other pieces, become more and more readable, and I can see traces of the historical image in each of them more clearly.
- There are many narratives about "Tehran Monoxide" project over the past ten years. How did the initial idea for "Tehran Monoxide" project come about? What is your narrative about this project other than what appeared in the book "Tehran Monoxide"?
According to me, the book is part of the project. When the idea of the project was formed, I had no intention of collecting and publishing an Artist Book; such projects seldom become books in Iran. The "Tehran Monoxide" project was started with an open mind and without constraints. The title and a series of events sparked an idea and turned into a cultural-artistic project. The most important issue during this project was the increased encounter with society and its problems. My age range caused this. During a period when I interacted with the community more. As a result of the birth of my child, I entered new spaces for the first time.
The path of an artist's life is usually determined by him/her. Their choice of spaces often causes social isolation. In the experience of isolation, an artist perceives themselves as invisible, thinking they do not exist; they live, however, in reality. Some people may prefer to choose their place in any social situation; to maintain their own space, they visit certain galleries, meet certain people, watch certain movies, and follow certain channels. It's a lifestyle many people lead.
Additionally, for an artist who is simultaneously forming a family, there are many issues and experiences he/she may never have considered. However, in his/her current state, he/she has to face them. For example, in the case of a child going to school, there aren't many choices and you must choose only between a few. When I encountered such issues, I found myself in a new situation; city, people, society, and my situation. I was faced with problems that I hadn't chosen to deal with as a painter. I was always painting (before the birth of my child). At Assar Gallery, I held three solo shows and participated in some exhibitions abroad. Gradually, my paintings became popular, and most of them were sold. I collaborated with some famous galleries. Then, my life took me in another direction and showed me a different form of itself; I didn't have time to paint or spend long hours in my studio. Consequently, I had the opportunity to see issues I had never encountered before. I experienced a change in my life as a result of the birth of my child, but other circumstances and issues can also lead artists out of isolation. They may do this on purpose to experience life differently. It is your choice to be a part of this challenge. My new situation was something I wanted and chose. I encountered Tehran as a result of this choice and path; a city whose status and conditions are not clearly defined for a child. A family does not have many options and facilities for leaving their child with another child, unless within certain and limited conditions.
- So the initial idea for Tehran Monoxide came from your own experiences.
That situation I have been in and the events around me helped me to clear my mind. The path chosen for a cultural-artistic project does not always depend on the artist's personal life. It can be a historical event, a political event, or something else. I mean there are a lot of subjects that artists can explore and become immersed in. Having to face and experience new issues was a concern for me as a person interested in experiencing. A question or an excuse came to mind: "What is my behavior when confronting this situation?" I still have this question in my life and it bothers me.
For example air, noise, and light pollution in the city limit some activities, especially for children. It prepared my subject. We are currently experiencing a similar situation due to the Covid pandemic. Many artists are affected by the Covid pandemic; these are problems related to humanity and society. People with children are put in a weird situation because of these restrictions. Even though children are naturally curious about many different spaces, parents should investigate and limit the options available to them. In most cases, this choice is influenced by political, economic, and social factors as well.
- When was the situation you were in?
From 2008 onwards.
- It refers to the period during which Iran's economy and politics changed. The social situation was also changing, in addition to the personal issues you have been facing.
Yes. Most independent artists were facing problems at that time and their personal lives changed as a result. By contrast, I couldn't go anywhere and do anything. As my child was not yet a year old, he was very dependent and I could not leave him with anyone. The political situation was effective in the details of the "Tehran Monoxide" project. Some artists believe that protests should be loud and clear. I believe in small changes. In our society, protesting openly is not acceptable You will be treated harshly if you protest openly in our society.
However, issues such as women, comparing their lives with men, and so forth do not relate to this project. Anyway, you are human with certain gender that you cannot deny. I can't be a man or a father. Being a woman and being able to be a mother is what society has established for me and I can accept that due to my mind frame. I felt responsible for my child. During this experience, I came into contact with the issue of death and life, of being or not being, of living and health. After the Covid pandemic, health issues have become less important, whereas before this disease we were surrounded by too many issues. In the media, Corona is given more attention, but pollution is also a humanitarian crisis, which is secretive in its statistics. Today, we wonder about death because of Corona, but there were always issues and diseases of death like influenza, heart conditions, and other diseases.
My research began with the issue of pollution and its consequences. Based on my research, I discovered that a child's IQ is lowered by pollution, and that noise pollution affects the child's learning process, which helped to shape my ideas. Still, I was overwhelmed by the idea of how to create my artwork. There are several projects I have worked on, such as the "quilt" series entitled "Insect's March", which was featured at Etemad Gallery in 2011, and a project entitled " Factory's Garden" that I executed in the abandoned space of a spinning factory with a group of artists. Those experiences made possible different encounters with different spaces and mediums; things that happen after leaving the educational environment. My constant concern was painting and creating a space that was separate from the mainstream. I should have done things to prepare. Paintings on walls create spaces, but my problem was the audience's engagement with the entire gallery space. Eventually, such works are considered personal experiences. A person takes courses at a university, receives ideas from a professor, and shapes his/her viewpoint by observing exhibits, museums, and reading books.
Gradually, I met people in the same situation. In our conversation, I was addressing the issue I was dealing with; what are you doing today? How is your situation? Are you able to take your children out in these conditions in the last month? How have you spent these three months? I find a common topic with which to converse with others. Besides the art world, this type of conversation got more prevalent in my life. During the 1990s, I was a student and entered the field of art professionally.
When it comes to my work, I always choose the approach that I believe benefits my thinking and living. Taking this path has never been easy. I live in a similar situation to other people in this country. I studied at the Art University of Tehran. I got a good ranking in the Konkoor (the Iranian entrance test to universities) and was able to study photography because of an unknown motivation. As a person becomes more immersed in an academic atmosphere, he/she becomes more disappointed. There is no fulfillment of his/her expectation of acquiring specialized knowledge. Neither an academic space nor a conservatory could have this atmosphere. Those people and the relationships we established with them allowed me and many others to grow and create art.
- So the idea for the "Tehran Monoxide" project came from your conversations and connections with people around you?
Exactly. In light of this conversation, I made sure (to feature my artwork in a new form). During that period, artists produced works and exhibited them as a group more or less. There have been those who have worked before me on the issue of air pollution. In this regard, I am not claiming to be the first person to act in this field, but such approaches were immature at the time. In those days, I was known as a painter, and I remember going to a [well-known] gallery to introduce the first part of the "Tehran Monoxide" project, and being told: "There is no place for you in the city, Negar. You are an artist, and you belong in the gallery. What a pity!" Art, however, has the freedom and extent to transcend these common definitions. There is no necessity to be an artist as part of the nature of art. An artist doesn't have a mold to follow. Art would have ended hundreds of years ago if the artist was required to follow a mold.
The first conversations I had were with Shadi Ghadirian. In a similar way to me, she has a daughter who is my son's age. Through Shadi, I met Mojgan Bakhtiari. In the beginning, we were artists' mothers talking about something. During a workshop, I asked all mothers to attend or invited them to meet as well.
- You selected people who looked like you from a social and cultural point of view for this conversation. The artist-mothers.
Yes, according to me, that role is important. Every day and moment, an artist-mother experiences something different. An artist without these conditions might produce even more impressive work; but for me and the "Tehran Monoxide" project, the result was irrelevant. This event needed to take place.
- Yes, this is possible.
Having a conversation was essential to me. The purpose of talking is very important, even when people do not reach a common conclusion during a conversation. In our society, it is very rare to have a conversation. The artist goes to his/her atelier, creates a work, then comes out to talk about it. Contrary to this, I think sometimes the artist will engage in a conversation with others, but no work will eventually be produced and shown.
- It's an interesting perspective since you're talking about a time when action was important. Social actions from 2008 onwards.
Not 2008. In fact 2011.
- What about initial project ideas?
2010 and 2011.
- In any case, this project was being formed while the artistic space was not ready for action-oriented artworks.
- If I'm not mistaken, in the years 2009-2010, a few things happened at Azad Art Gallery by Amir Mabad, which caused a lot of controversies.
But they just happened in the gallery.
- This gallery tried to push itself forward and be radical and avant-garde/progressive; somehow, social events influenced its exhibitions. However, such approaches were not acceptable to gallery owners and audiences who observe the artwork on the wall.
Iran's galleries claim that they give artists a space to express themselves and present their work. Artists in Iran do not have a variety of options. In consequence, these thoughts are born. Can your home be used as a gallery? Is it possible to use your hallway as a gallery wall? All these actions, though, should be grounded in knowledge and awareness. Anyway, in my opinion, an artist should experiment, and this is better than doing nothing. Of course, it depends on the artist.
- In light of the discussions you had with Ms. Ghadirian and Bakhtiari, how have things been going with the "Tehran Monoxide" project?
Neda Razavipour joined us after the second or third session. This project was largely dependent on my cooperation with Shadi. In the conventional world of art and culture, Shadi is well-known, but for her, social events are very important. In this project, Shadi always accompanied me. [Regarding the implementation of the project] Initially, I didn't tell anyone about it since I wasn't aware of everything. I insisted from the beginning that if an issue was to be raised and addressed, it shouldn't take place in the gallery. It is necessary to find an alternative space. During group meetings, the remaining topics were discussed.
These meetings led to the preparation of a list of people with similar conditions. The person on this list need not be a woman. we invited any male artist who played the equivalent role of mother as a father. About 40 people were on the list we could work with. We called and invited them with Shadi's help. Over time, our group became large, and we realized that to attract attention, we should invite artists who work in fields other than visual art too.
- What was the purpose of those sessions? What did you talk about? What approach did they take? Did you investigate the topic or did you search for an act?
(The concept of) "presence" was mostly discussed. It is expected from artists in this society to hold numerous exhibitions each year. Artists can, however, consider other issues (in addition to art and creating artwork). There is a right for artists to work in the context in which they need to. We did not examine similar cases around the world, present articles, or discuss theories during the sessions. Our goal was to understand what we are doing and where do we stand.
- The Observer of circumstance.
We wanted to know what our situation is. The interesting conclusion that emerged from these 1-year sessions was that individuals can discuss the issue in their way. We did not only look at the issue through visual arts. Instead, we approached it from the perspective of literature, cinema, poetry, and music. The range of comments matched the space that I had in mind. In the gallery, this project will become short news, become a memory, and expire. So I didn't consider this project for a gallery. The issue is rooted in my experience holding exhibitions. For example, my work on a project might last two or three years, but once the exhibition ended, the flame of what I did was extinguished. At 18 or 20, I didn't think this way. In my opinion, the paths taken by artists vary according to context and geography. Artists from different geographies have no similarities. This is not because the artist does not want it; it is because this is not a possibility. In the current period, Iran and abroad face complex political issues. Every moment, the situation in the world becomes more complicated. I realized that the things I see are not mine and have nothing to do with me after looking at examples similar to the topic I had outlined. It happens to every subject and every artist.
We began in 2011, for example. The number of large cultural spaces was limited. The majority of activities were boycotted. As a result of these problems, I kept myself out of that situation. I didn't want to be scrutinized by others and present my work with titles like World Day [that I had nothing in common with]. My acquaintances in the fields of culture and education led me to conclude that children are the best audiences to hear and see about our problems. The audience we serve is, at best, children, and where is there a place exclusively devoted to children? School, a place for education. For this project, I did not worry about choosing the right space. I chose the school from two or three options, and I believe it was the right decision
During that time, artists did not receive any financial support for their work. The role of the art sponsor wasn't as prominent as it is now. A large number of artists provided personal support and contributed a great deal of money to make this project a reality. As our main goal when creating artwork, we wanted to consider children as our audience. Children were our audience, and that's an important point. Sometimes a work created by this mindset frustrates children. Artists were not supposed to work "childishly". Children's perspectives had to be considered by artists. As artists, we don't always think about our artwork from the audience's perspective. Our art is produced for ourselves, our peers, and our coworkers, yet other aesthetics belong to different societies and are different, and should be taken into consideration as well. According to my opinion, this view had a positive impact on the works of this project's artists.
- You speak of the first "Tehran Monoxide" event.
I don't consider it an event, but they have called it one.
- There was, however, a beginning and an end to it.
Yes, but it wasn't an event. All these years, I was told to break down the project into countable events like Monoxide one, Monoxide two, ... . This approach has never appealed to me. The project isn't defined enough for me to be able to number it.
- Based on your explanation of the "Tehran Monoxide" project, it seemed more like a flow than a series of one-by-one actions.
Exactly. It was a flow without any schedule.
I want to talk about the first part of this project. The part which was held in Manzoome Kherad Institution ("Green Corners" with the cooperation of 36 artists, 2013).
It was a very good possibility to hold the project in a place like Manzoome Kherad Institution. The space gave us the ability to do various things; an amphitheater, large corridors, and classrooms that were equipped with TV and video projection which allowed us to play videos. I wanted to take the whole project to another school in other regions of Tehran, but most schools do not have such facilities. Nowadays, many schools may be better equipped, but at that time there were no such facilities everywhere and there was no such view. It was a surprise for everyone to hold an art exhibition in a school.
- So, the school provided a situation for artists who collaborated with the "Tehran Monoxide" project to show their works to the children [students of the same school]. But in the first step, there was no prior arrangement with the children yet, and such activity had not been revealed to them.
In this part of the project, the artists presented qualified works. For instance, Shadi Qadirian's work, which became very popular among children, or Soroush Sehhat, who involved children with his work by writing dialogues for them. Masoud Kalantari also presented a wonderful performance: he wrote a poem for his child and brought someone who had a canary and used masoud's poems for fortune telling. Unfortunately, we don't have enough videos and photos from that performance. The artist must also consider these issues; but at that time, I was busy doing a difficult and important task: presenting the works of thirty-six artists in a space of hundreds of meters all over a five floors building. Maybe it is due to the fact that I was less experienced and didn't have many connections. Over time, I became able to add a group to the project whose responsibility was to document, compile and archive the process, and now we have documents.
- From what you said, I realized that there were two very important issues for you; one is talking to children and the other is your own experience of pollution in the city. In the first part of this project, both of these topics were the main focus of the artists' works; it means bringing up the critical issue of pollution in the context of a conversation with children.
Throughout parents who are involved in the issue and in collaboration with famous artists. In my opinion, artists are not separate from their society. There are times when the issue is close and there is no distance. The issue of the "Tehran Monoxide" project is the problem of being and not being, and life and existence. Who is closer to us than our children?
- And how did this look go on?
Anyway, that event was held for two weeks in Manzoome Kherad Institution; it started on World Children's Day started and was open to the public. From 16:00 onwards, anyone could come to the school and visit the space. That school had 1500 students. I provided the children with tours and showed them the works. The interesting thing was that none of the works was damaged. Various works were present at this event; works by Mojtabi Tabatabaei and Mojtabi Tajik were mounted on the wall, and Shadi Parand's artwork was a sculptural installation in the middle. There were conditions ready to damage the works, but the children's behavior was interesting.
Now that eleven or twelve years have passed since that program, I have met graduates of that school and they all remember the program in detail. This was very important to me; the trace of the project and the impact it left. These are the feelings I have now towards the event. At that time, I did not expect such a thing. I thought that the program would be effective just for one or two days; like a sedative that you take one day and everything is back the other day.
- This is my observation; I don't know how true or false it is. I have witnessed the impact that the teaching method and the school have on the students. I see that people who enter the field of art have already studied at Manzoome Kherad Institution. Did holding this program make art education in this educational complex have a different approach?
No; I cannot claim that. This issue is part of the policies/practices of the Art House of Manzoome Kherad Institution. Mrs. Mercedeh Sadeghi played an important role in holding this project, and Mrs. Haerizadeh, as the manager of the institution, was an effective person in doing so. The fact that a school accepted me to hold the first such experience in this school, is the credit that people gave me. They themselves have been open to experience.
- But my point has been the student's encounter with that program. A child who was eight or nine years old in 2011 is now eighteen years old. Their exposure to that kind of education enabled them to have an influential experience in choosing their path. Whether to enter the art community or choose another field?
Of course. For example, in this program, all the exhibition guides were selected from school students. They were responsible for turning the videos on and off, and they were responsible for guiding the visitors as well and these are impressive chances. However, this school provided facilities and the Art House of Manzoome Kherad Institution had and has a unique way of working, which we are facing the effects of. Effects that matter.
- And it increases year by year.
I'm sure of the "effect" over time, not the moment, not what's being seen; therefore, this is the only thing that makes me want to do the project again or add other parts to it. For example, during the "Tehran Monoxide" project, the audience may not see anything at all, but what happened affected the audience; time impact. The work became effective over time.
Anyway, fortunately, this program happened. I always say that maybe this project could not be done today. Things are not predictable in Iran. You cannot be sure that what you are doing today, you can do tomorrow. Or maybe you can do it much better than before. However, in Iran, everything is unstable and depends on a set of issues, decisions, and the way of management. This instability affects everything; especially in holding and executing such works that are momentary and experimental. But, regarding holding this exhibition, I had to coordinate with the school much earlier.
Overall, it was an interesting collaboration. Later, a number of artists of that period migrated from Tehran to other cities, precisely because of the situation in Tehran. Some of them established the "Nafas" group, whose members were Jinoos Taghizadeh, Mojgun Bakhtiari, Neda Razavipour, and Mojtaba Tabatabaei. They founded a non-governmental organization (NGO) with the same name. Finally, these kinds of issues meet and connect in one place. Several artists may work on the same subject, but everyone has their own style of thinking and approaching the issue. I believe that this project cannot be carried out by a sociologist, sociology student, or anyone in the field of education, for example, child study and education.
Art has a quality that sets itself apart from other sciences. Lots of people activate in the field of education and we all see the results too. Based on public beliefs, a good school is recognizable only by its graduates with good grades in the university entrance exam. Nothing else happens. For example, students participate in student festivals! I have a problem with such programs. Separating [artists of all ages and all classes] makes it easy to control. When you put such approaches together, controlling becomes difficult.
That program is over. I thought the project would end with this show, but my work had just begun. When I saw the impact of the project, when I heard what they were talking about the project, I realized that the children were involved. Anyway, whatever the concept is, it is the artist's matter and they like it. I realize my issue has burdens which can expand and this is just a very small part of it. I believe if the project wanted, it could address many other issues and it is disposed to expand more. I cannot check many of these aspects and I cannot claim that I have reflected all the parts related to this issue in the "Tehran Monoxide" project. One part is related to economic issues, the other part is political and social ones. This project is a detailed story.
- But it is good that we are moving forward step by step. Several things have been said that maybe only you and the people who were involved in this process at that time are aware of them.
That's why I publish the project in a book. It would have been forgotten, [if it had not been written]; the art community would have forgotten it. In Tehran, I entered a wonderful cultural space that had just been founded and was owned by two former students of Kherad. After I introduced myself and they understood who I am, they talked to me about that project for hours and it was amazing. Maybe, according to you, it has an impact on their subconscious; but I can't claim that the program directly affected them.
- The issue of influencing is more related to creating a situation where the child can have a personal experience. Seven-eight-year-old children are exposed to a current and are considered a part of that story. At that time, they might just be having fun, but something will sparkle for them. At that moment, the children know that they can enjoy photography. In other words, they are exposed to something that was unknown to them before. This unknowingness of the artistic experience may not have happened to them until the age of forty, and as a result, this matter remains unknown.
Yes; not all children can go to the gallery and visit the museum.
- For example, I can point to the event that is happening in Argo. A large number of children go there every day and see the work of Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam. I didn't even know Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam until I was seventeen years old, and I encountered him and his works through my studies for the entrance exam.
My problem is that not all children have the chance to experience this. How many children are visiting Vaziri Moghaddam's show? Maybe not even a hundred children.
- After the school event, what happened to the "Tehran Monoxide" project?
After the school show, after two weeks, everything was collected. Many of the works of this exhibition, or rather the arrangement, were not pretentious. Students reacted negatively to works that were pretentious; they criticized that work or ignored it indifferently. Children are aware, they understand. Especially when the works were compared, they understood very well. They would find out which of the works of these 36 artists was giving them advice. They took a stand on works and wrote about them. For example, they wrote that we do not like this work. But on the other hand, there were also works that subtly played with the child. I wanted that engagement that shows the artist's intelligence. It was after this program that I realized that this program has somehow tested the behavior of the artists. Artists who claim to have social concerns, but cannot [communicate with the community]. On the other hand, there are artists who work unassumingly and are able to form this relationship through their work. People recognize this [ability of the artist] very well; not only adults but also children understand. And imagine if our educational system held such programs for young students, what wonderful education we would have? But it won't happen.
It was our luck that Kherad Institution gave us this opportunity. A school that is well equipped and children can watch videos in their classrooms. Imagine you were sitting on the bench and as an audience you were watching the artists' video arts; videos of Mandana Karimi, Farshid Shafiei, or Neda Razavipour. This occurrence itself mesmerized me more than the artists there. [I have to think to remember the names of the artists whose works were there because it was the event itself that attracted me.]
- From a specific time on, the students took part in the project and became part of it. They were taking pictures.
The first program became a reason for conducting the following parts. The "Tehran monoxide" project arose from the heart of the other project. I didn't imagine it would have different parts to number and section. Each program was defined by and grew out of the previous program, which was somehow unpredictable. It was important for me that its presence is not seen, its voice is not heard. A child is ignored in a city like Tehran. Maybe other cities in Iran have similar conditions. However, seeing this issue propounds a human concept. In the encounters I've ad, Tehran is a city where not only such spaces do not exist but also their number is constantly decreasing. This project was exposed to a number of people; they felt a similar concern, so this made me continue the project and start the second part.
I did not rush to conduct the second part. I carried out the dialogue sessions again and talked to Shadi, Ms. Mercedeh Sadeghi, and my husband, Ali. It was during these conversations that we realized this project has the ability to be more explored. Gradually, I thought that we artists have produced artworks for children and provided them with a series of content. Now if we ask children to provide us with content, how will it be? We turned the camera lens [to see their look].
- And the monologue turned into a dialog.
Exactly. The question was, what are they seeing? Through my work, I am showing them that this is who we are, this is the nature of our city, and this is the state of our lives. My view of an artist that is divided into 36 parts. Now, you thousands and millions of people, what do you say? How do you see? You tell us. The best tool to start this conversation was a camera that everyone had access to and could express their views through. Before starting the project, I was guessing how this production content would be, but to my surprise, I realized that the children see the city and relate to it in a different way.
Perhaps other fields of art, such as designing or making something, were not so simple; but mobile phones equipped with cameras were available to all children and through this work we were able to cover a wide range of children. During the meetings and consultations, Shadi and I had, we came to the conclusion to once again use the possibility that the Kherad institution provided us. We published a call that was sent to all schools in Tehran on behalf of the Kherad Art House. In this call, it was described under what conditions children can work. They were supposed to tell us how they see the city of Tehran and what has made the city polluted.
The subject and the tool were clear for the children: What is infecting this city? How big should the photo be? At that time, there was no social media or messengers yet, and we requested children to email us their photos or send them to Art House. This program started in 2011 and lasted for about two years. I was able to collect 600 photos gradually and in a very slow process. We also faced various issues; for example, a school informed us that our children had taken photos and when we went to the school, the school principal did not give us the CD of the photos and said: "Your problem is not my problem. I don't want the children of this school to be involved in such an issue." There was also a school that didn't let us in at all. I remember that we used to go to these schools with Mahboubeh Karamli (photographer). Shirin Mellatgohar introduce us to a school located at Darveza Ghar as well. The material we requested was not available to the children of that school. With the help of Mohammad Reza Soltani, we were able to get disposable cameras and provide the children with them, so they could take pictures. In general, this program involved a wider range of children living in Tehran due to the connection of different people with different institutions. The problem is that social media were not available to everyone then, and if they were as same as today, we would probably have more photos because they are so easy to use. It was difficult to email. The child should have given the photo to someone else, his father for example. The father had to transfer the picture to the computer and then send an email; this process was complicated. However, we managed to gather a unique collection of photos.
- And this happened. 600 photos are a high number.
Yes, it happened. A large collection of photos was archived, of course, we cannot say that all of them corresponded to the topic we were considering; but I believe that every photo represents a point of view and an approach, even if it is unrelated. The issue was not our understanding of aesthetics; it was a general and broad aesthetic that was specific to children living in Tehran.
The next issue was where to display the photos. In the first step, we went to the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults to put this collection into a form of a book. A book that shows the view of children who live in this city. The meetings went well; but with the change of management of the institute, the project stopped. I was determined to display the photos in a public space. Metro stations were one of the suggestions. Together with Hoofar Haghighi and Mohsen Yazdipour, we visited the proposed place, but I had no desire to present them there. From my point of view, citizens are careful in subway stations and there is exactly where people have the least effect in polluting the air. It is true that there is considered a public space as well, but [compared to the urban space] people are more considerate. As a result, the subway station was not a suitable place to display the photos and [presenting the works in such a space] was defeating the purpose.
I didn't act excited when faced with the provided possibilities. A little later, I went to the Laleh parking lot, located on Fatemi Street. I needed two authorizations to display photos, but I failed to get them.
We announced in the call that we will display the works and give prizes to each age group. So, we went back to the Kherad Institution, printed at least one photo of each participant, and held the exhibition. As a prize, we provided each age group with a camera. But I still do not emphasize selected photos. This was just to motivate the kids to be encouraged and send us their works. Facing photos, we couldn't say which one was better. It was important to archive them. This archive is a great collection that is a must to see for everyone who works in different areas of the city. Many of these photos were taken by young children [and represent their perspective on the concept of the city.]
There are two or three points to consider dealing with these photos. One is that the way children look at the city depends on the area in which they live. For example, a child who lived in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd districts used to take pictures from behind the window; the window of the room, or the window of the car. This issue retells that a child who lives in these areas has absolutely no exposure to the city. I mean an area of the city that is likely to be less affected by air pollution, or its residents are considered economically prosperous. On the other hand, as we go towards the city center and the south part, children are more exposed to the city. I mean, the kid is taking pictures in the city. Another point regarding the difference between the living area of each child is that there are no humans in photos of children living in prosperous areas. The photos taken by children living in the city center capture a small number of people; but in the photos of children living in the south of the city, the encounter with people and real life is more evident. Paying attention to this issue is very important.
I was able to present this archive through a connection at an exhibition in Poland. A little while ago, these photos were shown in Berlin. The Silk Road Art Gallery, Tehran, organized an exhibition of this archive as well. In addition, children's works have been presented in Turkey too.
- Today, when you look back, you see that several photographers and artists have emerged from the children who sent you photos. Do you define them as artists today or as the same child who took that picture and sent it to you?
No; they are the same child who lived in Tehran in 2012 or 2013.
- I mean, when you look at the photos, don't you consider that this photo belongs to that person who is now an artist? Do you not follow this connection? Do you have a more distant view of the issue?
Not at all. My viewpoint toward the photos is along the same project. The incident you are talking about is beyond the plan I arranged. For example, one of the selected photos belonged to an Afghan girl who was not only a rapper, but her family lived in Afghanistan and she herself worked in a school near Malard. My look focused on the children living in Tehran. I had nothing to do with their nationality. This girl now lives in America and this did not affect my choice. Her photo belonged to the time when she was living here. This person has become a different person today. Maybe her look has changed or she doesn't rap anymore.
- How do you name this project? In other words, if this project happens today, the artist, art director, curator, or any other agent, will name this project in a way it reminds the word "action". What are your options? In my opinion, this project is a curatorial project. Do you see it the same way?
Due to today's condition and with the definitions we currently have, this is the best title.
- I want to scrutinize the fact that when the "Tehran Monoxide" project started, there was no such thing as a curatorial project. As far as I remember, even the title "curator" was used cautiously and galleries and the curators themselves preferred to use the word "selection". For example, this collection has been compiled by the selection of this person. Finally, they used the title of "art director", because it was not customary to use the word "curator". How do you think? Do you call the trend that started in 2008 and continued, as a curatorial project?
I cannot make such a claim. Curatorial projects are 100% clear. The curator takes action [by planning].
- And what if the nature of the defined project is unpredictable?
The importance of this project is in its unpredictability, but it is possible that there is no such approach in the academic domain in Iran. My impression today is that my role during the "Tehran monoxide" project was that of a curator. A matter has started somewhere and I will not allow its flame to be extinguished or ignored. That's why the "Tehran monoxide" project is fluid. Depending on the conditions and situations that arise, it shows itself in different forms to people. The problem is the endeavor I have to put the matter under the spotlight.
- And this continuity brings about the meaning of curation. Perhaps in the case of the "Tehran monoxide" project, it can be said that this action is a form of treatment, a treatment that can be provided in any way; the effect of a collection, the work of an artist, or in the case of "Tehran monoxide" project, the act of curing/treating and caring or even observing.
"Observ" is the best choice. Finally, a title was chosen for this project. I tried to have a poster or a characteristic for every program we held, to record the date of the event. [The children's act of observing and] looking at Tehran was mentioned in the poster of this program. I mean the point of view of children and teenagers in Tehran; children between the ages of four and eighteen. There was no specific age limit and all children and teenagers could participate in it. The important issue was the look of the children. I could not judge, determine good and bad, and rank the photos taken by the children. This collection does not have the best and selected ones, but they are chosen according to the conditions and the space where they are going to be displayed.
- Therefore, we are looking at the same curatorial "action".
Exactly. The act of choosing happened in Berlin, Istanbul, or even the Silk Road Art Gallery. I couldn't display all the photos and I had to make a choice and this choice depended on my preference; what (point of view) do I want to highlight in this exhibition?
- The way these photos are displayed is also interesting. The photos are not framed and the exhibitive aspect of the works has been removed. These photos are not placed in a museum format and are not considered as artistic or exhibiting objects.
Yes, these photos are not artistic. Having an artistic approach toward them is wrong. I am not trying to give these photos artistic value. The value of these photos is not in being artworks, but in the look that the child has. The only good thing, or maybe I can say the best thing that could happen to these works, was to publish the photos in the form of a book. A book that will be published especially through the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. The institute's duty is not always to show beautiful paintings by famous artists. It should deal with issues in accordance with different times and historical periods. For example, the children from Tehran are already seeing Tehran this way. Why shouldn't we show such a thing?