“What Was Gulf Futurism”

Excerpts from my contribution to Ahmad Makia’s artist edition ZIGG: Superficial, November 2018.


 

[To Ahmad] Your remarks made me think of, once again, the necessity to question existing vocabularies and reinvent their future anteriority, realizing their functioning as hyperstitional entities, bringing about new normals, indeed. However, we often and mostly cannot but stay with existing vocabularies and familiar tropes and try to reinvent them from within. A new terminology is in fact a non-neologism or a heretical transvaluation, only appearing after the fact. So, while questioning the nature of facticity, we need to engage with unprecedented facts that can reiterate and reinforce past neologisms anew, or fulfill their future-oriented inherence. In the words of Kodwo Eshun, in his Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture at Goldsmiths in 2017, this is to retro-currently join the thread of those (non-)neologisms that

“are actually forms of life… The names of and for aesthetico-political positions that operate by disagreements and differentiations, that make claims that must be argued. Each of these is not so much a term as a war of and over interpretation, a stance that aims to intervene in cultural politics, that fashions itself to articulate discontent, to focus despair and depression into theories to live by, theories that are embodied, theories that live in us, and through us, and with us, and on us.”

Recently, at the launch session of Ethnofuturismen at Volksbuhne in Berlin, I addressed such “forms of life” through the notions of “temporal climates” and the “chronosphere.” 

Each temporal climate has its prevailing time patterns, which constantly influence and are influenced by other climatic times, their histories as well as the velocity and frequency of the course of their events. To follow the routes of transformation that tie various temporal climates together is to move along their exponential divergence from initial conditions, that is, from supposedly localized situations to planetary scales, while remaining enmeshed within a mutating earth system whose transformation can be neither attributed to a single cause nor a single set of effects. This, of course, requires us to challenge the constructed linearity of historical causation to begin with, as well as the unilateral and progressive movement of time, and question the geometrical politics of such and similar abstract models in relation to the realities of our times and times to come. Moreover, “timelines” and their associated epistemologies need to be stretched sideways, letting the “planes of temporality” and “layers of time” unfold and spread out, in order for us to be able to come into terms with how little we know of our historical horizons, soon enough before they get totally closed on us, and raise our collective sensitivity toward the complex chronometries of life and labor across life forms.

“Advection” is the term used in meteorology to explain the transfer of heat or matter by the flow of a fluid, especially horizontally in the atmosphere or the sea. To couple this term with the formulation of “temporal climates” is in fact to arrive at another familiar trope, the butterfly effect, which emerged from within hard sciences and has since appeared in fields as far as extreme fiction, as well as late capitalist spoken language, given how chaotic we routinely feel the world has gone.

What I tried to address in terms of ethnofuturisms are phenomena that exist and exert their force in the manner of a butterfly effect across what, again, could only suggestively be called the “chronosphere.” This is to suggest the very complex materiality as well as the planetary expanse of temporal resources, similar to what is at stake in the currently critical condition of other terrestrial resources as well as fluid and atmospheric elements. All this demands to be collectively addressed, as that which we all have something at stake in. In addition to the aggravation of climatic and environmental conditions worldwide, and to hint back at my  there’s also the “AirSpace”, according to a 2016 article on the popular media outlet The Verge, which stands for how the spaces we pass through and occupy internationally are increasingly becoming the standardized product of corporate tech firms –– the “same old same old” of Starbucks, Airbnb, and so forth… “This new geography is the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live or co-work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere we go.” AirSpace is, therefore, an instantiation of the “infrastructure space” of 21st-century life. Accordingly, there could be the notions of AirTime and Infrastructure Time… Is there any moment we can find ourselves off the “airtime” of contemporaneity across our social-mediatized lives? Following the environmental and political crises of recent times, what would be the viable modes of engagement with today’s shared time-crisis? If the distinction between public and private spaces has been de facto “undone” by the machinations of an infrastructure space, then what are the temporal connotations of this undoing? How could we begin addressing our “public time” today?

The hyperstitional artifact of the “chronosphere,” or infrastructure time, or AirTime, is designed to address the realm through which temporal advection is regulated, that is, the horizontal transfer of the “heat or matter” of time, in all its fluidity, across our planetary history.

So let’s rephrase and repeat in order for a definition to emerge: Ethnofuturisms are those phenomena, traditions, movements, and practices that tend to address the latent coordinates of shared time patterns and temporal paracommons by means of facilitating and intensifying, technically accelerating, butterfly effects across the planetary chronosphere.

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Notes From the Attic

Displaying the Material History of the CIA


Published in Cabinet 65, Fall 2017 – Winter 2018.


 

“No single man makes history. History cannot be seen, just as one cannot see grass growing.” The CIA’s online Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room quotes Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. The room features ninety-nine declassified documents, disclosed in 2014, that describe the agency’s covert program to facilitate the first publication, in 1958, of the novel in its original Russian. These documents appear on the website alongside millions of additional pages of material that will appeal to history buffs and UFO buffs alike.

Doctor Zhivago only appeared in Russian after English, French, Italian, and German translations had already earned it international esteem. The original, legendary samizdat has since been the object of intense study. But it was only in 2009 that journalist and broadcaster Ivan Tolstoy made allegations that the CIA had used the novel as an instrument of soft power by enabling Soviet citizens to read it. His book The Laundered Novel: Doctor Zhivago between the KGB and the CIA is crowded with claims and speculations that we know, in hindsight, to be only partially true, such as the suggestion that the agency influenced the Nobel Committee’s decision to award its literature prize to Pasternak, also in 1958.

The Zhivago example would make a perfect plotline for a classic pulp tale about the craft of intelligence, illustrating the shift from the hot, wartime climate of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the early 1940s to the Cold War–era CIA. Procedures for the public disclosure of unreleased government records were instituted as a result of the bloody proxy wars in southeast Asia some two decades later, with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) signed into law in 1966. The statute, which has since gone through numerous amendments and revisions, is still shot through with a comprehensive raft of exemptions. And with Executive Order 13526, issued in 2010, even information that meets the criteria for availability under FOIA can be exempted and reclassified upon reevaluation.

Taking one step back into the CIA’s sitemap, we arrive at the Library, where the earliest posts date back to April 2007, the year conspiracy theorists succeeded in their fifteen-year-long quest to declassify the “family jewels,” described by the agency as “almost 700 pages of responses from CIA employees to a 1973 directive from Director of Central Intelligence James Schlesinger asking them to report activities they thought might be inconsistent with the Agency’s charter.” On the day of their release, the then-director of the CIA, Michael Hayden, wryly stated that “most of it is unflattering, but it is CIA’s history.” Parts of this history had already leaked right onto the front page of The New York Times in 1974 when Seymour Hersh published his article on the “huge” project of domestic espionage against antiwar forces and other dissidents.

Back on the website, another Library subpage leads to the Center for the Study of Intelligence (CSI), a CIA department researching the agency’s very own history, along with methodologies of the intelligence field at large. The department publishes Studies in Intelligence, a peer-reviewed periodical founded in 1955 and containing both classified and unclassified content. Sourcing material for this journal is greatly facilitated by the department’s main mandate: administering the CIA Museum.

Founded in 1972, and occupying three corridors in two buildings at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the museum is not open to the public. Access is granted only to the staff, official visitors, and those occasional reporters who succeed in obtaining security clearance.

Toni Hiley, the museum’s curator for the past fifteen years, directs the “collection, preservation, documentation and exhibition of intelligence artifacts, culture and history”—as well as the Fine Arts Commission program, which has been running since the 1960s—to “bring the agency’s history into life.” The eight hundred exhibits on display range from art works and archival prints to weapons, espionage machinery, insignia, fake film scripts, and even boot hooks belonging to William J. Donovan, the “Father of Central Intelligence” and the founder of the OSS. That is only the tip of the twenty-eight thousand items sealed in this vast collection, drawing on which the museum frequently develops exhibitions, mounted off-site in partnership with other institutions in order to “promote a wider understanding of the craft of intelligence and its role in the American experience,” again according to the website.

More than two hundred of these artifacts are highlighted online, accompanied by concise, often enigmatic and tight-lipped, captions and embedded in a framework of multifarious tags, categories, stories, and dates; some of these items are also linked to the agency’s YouTube channel for a more dynamic follow-up. Branded as a chance to “Experience the Collection” online, the experience is more comparable to an infinite Feed of disclaimers. “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet,” posted @CIA on 6 June 2014, at 10:49 am, shortly after signing up. A catchy and effective PR manoeuver, indeed—and the agency has since been regularly embedding links to an “Artifact of the Week.” Similarly, the official Flickr profile dates back to 2011, and holds an album titled “All CIA Museum Artifacts,” though it contains only 168 images in total.

However, a huge pool of captioned stuff cannot readily amount to a perceptible sense of history. In 2014–2015, CSI published a guide to the CIA Museum and its collection, a companion to all the mediating anecdotes and interactive interfaces. In its preface, A Curator’s Pocket History of the CIA notes: “History can be studied in more than one way. … Museums are where you discover history by studying things, that is, artifacts, in context. … We start with what we have in the collection and use artifacts to reconstruct the history of the Agency. The result is more impressionistic and less linear than other histories.

The Pocket History is apparently the first in a series of publications titled Notes from Our Attic, which “tells the story of the CIA through artifacts illuminating history in a way words cannot alone.” The attic turns out to be a particularly apt space to invoke for such a project. In the mid-1600s, the term began to be used to refer to an element of the classical façade—a low decorative wall right above the main cornice at the top of the entablature. By late eighteenth century, attic came to mean the interior space enclosed by such a structure; only then did the attic, that spooky room right below the roof, come into being. This move from an architectural order related only to the surface of a building to a repurposed, functional space behind the surface seems comparable to certain tropes of clandestine activity, where things are instrumentalized beyond their manifest appearance, as if an unprecedented space has been opened up behind their obvious skin, a space filled up with covert functions. Repurposed things have itchy skins, hence the utility of persistently scratching their surfaces to expose hidden intentions. The Pocket History is a guide to the question of how alternate, covert spaces are produced beneath the surface of ordinary objects when they are repurposed. But it is also a guide to the question of when, to the historical timing of these subterfuges and of their public disclosure. And moreover, it is an apologia for the why, o ften flaunting the logic of the ends justifying the means.

Well chronicled in the Pocket History is how it took only a few decades to go from Secretary of State Henry Stimson shutting down the US Army’s “Cipher Bureau” in the 1920s because it was wrong for “gentlemen” to “read each other’s mail,” to the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Allen Dulles declaring in the 1950s that “when the fate of a nation and the lives of its soldiers are at stake, gentlemen do read each other’s mail.” An image of a vest-pocket paperback copy of the Russian edition of Doctor Zhivago, published during Dulles’s tenure as director, is featured in the Pocket History, with the caption sternly quoting from Tolstoy’s book: “Pasternak’s novel became a tool that was used by the United States to teach the Soviet Union a lesson.” Expressing no direct endorsement or objection in the face of this allegation, the caption ends by simply noting the official declassification of related activities in 2014.

There is much retrofuturistic technology to be discovered here There might be a miniature camera hidden behind a brooch or button, or a bird for that matter. The Pigeon Camera, devised by the Office of Research and Development (ORD), was used during the still-undisclosed “pigeon missions.” It was small and light enough to be carried by the bird, which flies much lower than a satellite or an aircraft, and delivers more detail than other “imagery collection platforms.” Another initiative of the ORD was the Insectothopter, an eavesdropping Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in the shape of a life-sized dragonfly. Robot Fish “Charlie,” on the other hand, was an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) developed by the Office of Advanced Technologies and Programs. Equipped with certain communication and propulsion systems and remotely controlled, such aquatic exploration too was aimed at perceiving more and more terrains of nature as bearers of intelligence.

But the more modest examples also look more cunning. Take the pair of gold cufflinks that DCI Richard Helms presented to case officer George Kisevalter upon his retirement in 1970. Embossed with the Pallas Athena helmet and a small sword, it was one of two identical pairs designed by the Chief of Station Peer de Silva, a graduate of the United States Military Academy, after his alma mater’s “Duty, Honor, Country” crest. The other pair belonged to Pyotr Popov, a major in the Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU), codenamed ATTIC. Stationed in Vienna and then in East Berlin, Popov wore the cufflinks from 1953 to 1959, always looking for the other pair—worn by an assignee allocated by Kisevalter, his handler—in order to confirm a bona fide connection with the CIA.

Categorized as Bodyworn Surveillance Equipment, the dress code for clandestine activity is “inconspicuous.” The artisans, technicians, and engineers working at the Office of Technical Readiness (OTR) make sure that all accessories and clothing are carefully crafted to stay unremarkable, to help an intelligence officer dissolve into the ordinary appearance of a public body. The caption for “The Well Dressed Spy” reads, “Intelligence officers … know that quality and craftsmanship have been ‘built in’ to their appearances.”

Low-tech accessories can also help you avoid contact altogether. “Dead Drops” are containers, either too unimpressive or too repulsive to attract a second glance, left at prearranged locations. Two examples are a tubular spike, easily pushed back into the ground, and a taxidermied rat, with a cavity opened up in its abdomen. Similarly, a couple of things with the organic look of corms, rhizomes, or some other kind of underground stem are titled Seismic Intruder Detector Devices, “designed to blend in with the terrain”—layers of relay sedimented deep into nature by the craft of intelligence.

The Pocket History’s last chapter on “9/11 and After” ends with a double-page image showing the scale model of the Abbottabad Compound, where Usama Bin Ladin was tracked down and killed. This model is an identical double of another kept at the Pentagon, watched in the White House Situation Room while the raid was unfolding. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) not only modeled the compound but made a life-sized mock-up of it too, to better train soldiers for the raid. Soldiers interviewed after the operation in May 2011 said that during the raid, they felt like they had been there before.

The craft of intelligence stands out from the natural order of things only retrospectively, either when blown apart by the disastrous force of an ill-fated operation, or when the prescheduled end of a given time frame is met—or when some simulation is revealed as a precursor to a future assault that has already ended. Nature serves as a camouflage for the silent growth of history. History, in return, alters nature in the fashion of retroactive legislations – to be treated as always having had effect. It amounts to the craft of sending public time spinning in a rearward direction, always looping back to the present from a forced revision of the past, again and again, one declassified thing after another, one raid after another.

 

A Postcard from Tehran

Published in Spike 57.


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Tehran is not only the capital of Iran, but a microcosm of it in many respects. So it’s fair to say that the tension between public and private spaces generates the main spatial drama in Tehran. The codes of behavior can dramatically change when moving from one space to another, and there’s a whole range of often conflicting gestures that a single body should embrace through its daily movements. That’s why preferred publics might be more easily assembled in private –– a party is most often a house party. But sometimes this can make it difficult to determine which space is whose, or where one space ends and the other begins. To host the public of your choice, you are most likely to need a space of your own, but a privately gathered public is still a public and can summon the authorities, as it is and remains de facto haunted by them. The interiors of a friend’s car driving around the city can feel pretty weird in this sense. “Should I behave by the codes of a private inside or the public outside?” Well, that’s just the routine banality of living the in-between. Tinted windows can make the experience a bit more clear-cut, yet the police might stop the car and ask for a look inside.

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So it is in the background of this conflicted relationship between interiors and exteriors that I, among many others, often find myself planning to leave Tehran, to get out. My general impression is that it would make a fantastic city only if you wouldn’t feel stuck in it. And anyone who doesn’t have the immediate means to leave at any moment would feel painfully pinned down. There are all sorts of external obstacles, including structural poverty and the hazards of international mobility, that can turn the thought of a jailbreak itself into an unbearable prison, with walls made of anxiety and inferiority complex. There’s been a certain municipal trend in mural designs over the past decade or so that seems to have been targeted at soothing such feelings. Surrealist trompe l’oeils, fantastical perspectives, openings onto a serene sky, and pastoral sceneries have proliferated across the many blank city walls, sometimes blending with and seemingly extending their architectural support.

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But against the false impression of open skies, there’s the EXIT. Hastily but most legibly written in uppercase, this graffitti has been rapidly appearing on numerous spots around Tehran. I must’ve noticed it sometime in 2015, and soon started archiving it on Instagram, hashtagged #TehranEXITmap. When friends finally realized that I’m not documenting my own work, my inbox kept getting flooded with images of their encounters, and I’d add them to the growing map. Street walls, trash cans, bus stops, roller shutters, and traffic signs have all had their moments of encounter with EXIT. Varied handwritings betray its collective nature. It’s not egocentric or identity-oriented, but a whole attitude exhibited in practice. Although painted out almost every day, EXIT keeps mushrooming, catching the passerby off guard. You might even start looking for them wherever you go. A blunt parody of escapism, this is a silent practice of territorialization, setting the provisional contours of a shapeshifting territory. So there can’t really be a map, as EXIT is not a signpost either. What fascinates me the most about EXIT is that it acknowledges a dire urge while brutally making fun of it. It’s an extremely simple yet profoundly deep gesture, verging on the status of a worldview, which makes it even more ridiculous. Every surface is turned into a means of reflection, redirecting the suddenly engaged passerby toward their own gaze and location. Upon encounter with EXIT, you are again and again placed on the inside, as if any position before, outside, or beyond this territory is rendered redundant. How can you exit a place without ever leaving it? The kind of opening that EXIT suggests is of a rhetorical nature: the only way out is a different way in.

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Tehran Behind the Screen

Published in Domus 1027.


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Photo by Giovanna Silva


Nasr Theatre, located in the back garden of Grand Hotel Lalehzar, was definitely the place to go for a hip night out in downtown Tehran in the 1940s. By the end of that decade, it had already changed name and appearance to Tehran Theatre when, on 5 June 1950, its then manager and Member of Parliament Ahmad Dehghan was assassinated in the Theatre offices. Hasan Jafari, an employee of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, was convicted and sentenced to death during a controversial trial, where the big elephant in the room, a plotted murder or an attempted coup, was deliberately overlooked.  

This story serves as the main backdrop to the 1998 memoir An Innocent to the Gallows, a work of personal investigation as well as an archeology of legal reports by Abolghasem Tafazoli, the lawyer who defended Jafari’s case in court. But there are many more unrecorded stories buried behind the sealed doors of old and often dilapidated theatres and cinemas around Tehran. Such an architectural body, one must remember, contains the double spirit of two lines of past events –– that which happens on as well as off the stage or the screen.

Metropole Cinema, for one, was inaugurated in 1946. One of those better-known cinemas on Lalehzar, it was renamed Roodaki after the revolution, and was eventually shut down in 2008. The design of a modest but strictly modern symmetrical grid, with a tall, projecting sign extending vertically across the facade, is only a minor legacy of Vartan Hovanessian. An Iranian-Armenian designer, architect, and civil engineer, his name is now synonymous with cement and Streamline Moderne, distinctive of a golden era in the history of urban development in Tehran.

The building once again met with the cinematic apparatus during the filming of Masoud Kimiai’s 2013 thriller Metropole. A vulnerable widow, escaping a group of hired goons, takes refuge at an old cinema, owned by two chivalrous young men. The space of the cinema is kept barely operating as a billiard club and storage for motorbikes. But Metropole is cast as both the location and a character, incarnated in the others whose stories unfold all over its ruins.

The film was an attempt to release the spirit of drama from within a forsaken sanctuary, to let the cinema live a second life, to animate its corpse, and exert the force of passion and ecstasy on those who are lured into it. Despite checkmarking some Iranian New Wave essentials, including heavy-handed dialogues, as well as crisscrossing good old Noir with oriental machismo, the film was mainly received with jeering reactions during its premiere.

Another landmark of this sort would be Radio City Cinema, which is located on Valiasr (Pahlavi) Street and was opened in 1958. Designed by Heydar Ghiai, whose other works include the former Senate of Iran (now the Secretariat Assembly of Experts for Leadership), this Googie edifice used to be embellished with populuxe neon works on the face of its giant and gentle curve. It was famous for regular screenings of fresh arrivals from Hollywood, also for the red velvet cover of its cozy chairs.

Hosted by Radio City, The Bubble, a 1966 science-fiction by Arch Oboler, was the first 3D feature ever shown in Iran, right after the international popularization of Space-Vision technology. But the transparent shield and entrapping force field that characterize the film seem to still hold the cinema captive, isolated inside a bubble, right where it is and has always been. It survived a fire in 1974, but was terribly damaged during the Revolution and, of course, shut down right after. Before being left totally abandoned, it was briefly reopened as a pharmacy in the war-torn 1980s. Currently, above its entirely glass storefront, a Bowl of Hygieia and another sign that reads “Peace be upon you, Imam Khomeini” are still hanging on the scaly facade.

Almost all of these buildings are technically confiscated properties, occasionally caught up in legal arguments between different (para-)governmental organizations, including the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation or the Foundation for Preserving and Propagating the Values of Holy Defense, on the one hand, and the Bureau of Beautification within the Municipality of Tehran, the Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran, or even some burgeoning private art institutions, on the other.

In late 2017, another campaign was successfully wielded by a large group of the culturati for the preservation of Nasr Theatre. The proposal is to turn it into the Theatre Museum, which will also come with a cafe and all the fuss. However, the spectral and the corporeal, as well as the dramatic and the mundane, had, from the beginning, populated these places together. Now the only way out from destruction, or a rusty storage, is to accept museumification. But what would be left of a cinema if the spirit of drama is exorcised? What would raise and fulfill curiosity for a night at the museum? It is the pull of imagination that seems to have vanished, and no museum can simply bring it back.

Ethnofuturismen (Merve Verlag)

. . . the rebirth of a non-neologism, a heretical transvaluation . . .


Realized in collaboration with Armen Avanessian and published by Merve Verlag Berlin, this volume includes contributions by Fatima Al Qadiri, Monira Al Qadiri, Sophia Al-Maria, Aria Dean, Kodwo Eshun, Steve Goodman, Anna Greenspan, and Karen Orton. It also includes the introductory essay “Ethnofuturisms: Findings in Common and Conflicting Futures.”

This anthology should by no means be considered exhaustive, but only a first step toward a new field of research that might once be called Comparative Futurism.

 

The Politics of Surplus: An Affirmative Strategy of Resistance

This essay (download here) was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the MA special subject Geopoetics at the Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2016-17. Below is Kodwo Eshun‘s feedback on the essay.


This is a theoretically sophisticated essay that demonstrates a confident grasp of its sources and its arguments. Compelling indeed is the opening section of the essay which interprets the post-Revolution politics of Iran through the Marxist notion of surplus. This concept is reformulated as the practice of those that ‘claim the surplus by reorienting the infrastructural means’ of their contribution to the ‘continuity of an exploitative apparatus’ so as to ‘redraw the lines of social forces’ and ‘rediagram the balance of power’. 

This complex formulation of surplus is read firstly through the 2009 protests as a ‘negation of the regime’ and secondly through the student protests of 1999 against the Khatami regime which is understood as the ‘first upsurge of the political surplus since the revolution’, which in turn is analysed as the heir to the post Iran-Iraq War ‘technotheocratic’ government of Rafsanjani.  

These examples do indeed demonstrate the need for an understanding of state-power in Iran as an ‘intricate patchwork of sovereign privileges.’ More examples treated in more detail would have been welcome. However, the essay develops a detailed formulation of Deleuze’s formulation of power as the relation of active and reactive forces and as the mutual presupposition of the diagram and the strata.

The result is a highly abstract and yet vivid conceptualisation of the surplus as a ‘specifically affirmative  strategy of resistance’ within contemporary Iranian politics. The surplus is to then understood in ‘the moments when anonymity takes over’ and is specified as a ‘living nonorganic social entity’. The emphasis is on the ‘nonorganic life’ of the surplus as a ‘non-organism’ that ‘diagrammatically doubles’ the Body without Organs and ‘seeps through the strata’ as formulated by De Landa. 

At this point, the essay loses focus somewhat. The parallel that is drawn between the Post-Communist transition of Eastern European states to neoliberalism and the ‘contradictory push and pull’ between the ‘desire for economic growth’ and the ‘stubborn refusal of liberal ideals of freedom’ in the Iran of Ahmadinjad, understood as different versions of opening to the Outside is useful but is self-admittedly inexact. It is a comparison that begs as many questions as it seeks to answer. 

The changing signification of the logo of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting is more germane to the context and could have been developed in more detail. Even better is the analysis of Ahmadinejad’s ‘ophidiophobic’ regime from 2005 onwards. The analysis of Ahmadinejad administration’s phobic aversion to the adaptive behaviour of the snake whose shape shifting movements diagrammed the mode of power of control society according to Deleuze, narrates a specific political moment in a way that enacts a specific diagram of forces. This analysis of Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions against Iran’s economy eloquently speaks of ‘Iran’s particular history of openness in relation to a range of orientations towards the outside.’ Here the balance between the abstract and the conjunctural, the philosophical and the political is working well. 

In order to analyse the ‘enigma of openness’, the essay draws upon Negarestani’s distinction between ‘being open’ to the Outside and ‘being opened’ by the Outside, which in turn inverts Gibson’s theory of affordance. Negarestani introduces further complications to the location of the outside by characterising oil as ‘the outside emerging from within’ and conceiving of Openness as that which ‘comes from the outside, not the other way round’, This is thought through in relation to Deleuze’s argument that the diagram represents ‘the outside of the strata’.   

The stakes of this analysis are finally clarified in [a reading] of Deleuze’s understanding that the ‘thought of the outside’ is the ‘thought of resistance’. As connected to Deleuze’s notion of a ‘certain idea of life that resists death’, the essay is able to position Deleuze’s affirmative inorganic vitalism of the outside against Negarestani’s position in which ‘life does not resist death but emerges from [within] it’.

To think through the political stakes of this distinction, the essay turns towards petroleum as that which reassembles the earth as an Artificial Geo-Intelligence. Here the notion of resistance and the surplus and the non-organic converge in a geocosmopolitical imagination of the Outside envisioned as an example of Eugene Thacker’s notion of the Planet that has detached itself from Earth and from World. 

The attempt to think through ‘unlife’ at the level of what Lyotard calls the ‘unthought’ is a compelling conclusion to an essay that devotes itself to a patient reading of Deleuze’s formulations of the diagram and the strata and Negarestani’s formulations of opening to the Outside. 

Undoubtedly, the relation between the diagrammatic and the conjunctural could have been better developed. Even Foucault’s writings on the moments before the Revolution, as reformulated by Melinda Cooper’s writings on neoliberalism’s restructuring of the oikos or economy would have provided insights that could have been elaborated upon for a post-1979 context.

Nonetheless, this is a theoretically ambitious essay that is stylistically eloquent and demonstrates a high degree of attention and ambition.

((Un)doing) Art Criticism in Iran

Excerpts from an address delivered at the panel Critics & Criticism: Reflections on Iranian Contemporary Art.


Art criticism in Iran (at least in its modern sense) is tied to a historical lineage of encounters with the outside, namely the (relatively more) liberal outsides of the West. This relationship to the outside can be traced both in the long-standing tradition of translation and also by the early critics who started establishing a verbal engagement with aesthetic practices once their studies abroad were finished. To further tie criticism to the outside, I’d say that critique, after all, is a legacy of Enlightenment and played an integral role in creating the liberal subject in the 18th century. This we know of course from Michel Foucault’s seminal essay “What is Critique?” from 1978. Therefore, art criticism as a companion to modern and contemporary art practice in Iran should be considered as part and parcel of a larger process of so-called modernization.

That is why I’d suggest that an analysis of Iranian contemporary art in general and art criticism in particular needs to register the links that can be drawn between what’s going on inside the country and what we’d refer to as international or global contemporary art. Iranian contemporary art cannot be discussed in isolation and needs to be positioned in relation to Contemporary Art as such, with capital C and capital A and, I’d dare to say, almost entirely irrespectful of local or contextual specificities. This is to, again, emphasize that the so called local and contextual is, as pointed out before, in a constantly inflecting relationship to its greater outdoors. Imagine, if you will, Contemporary Art as such and as itself the context, the global context.

That is what you’d encounter if you visit, for example, contemporaryartdaily.com from wherever in the world you might be based in. This suggestion is also in a way against a particular ideology of Contemporary Art which, I think, claims that there are no overarching rules or protocols that define contemporary art. This ideology insists on indeterminacy and heterogeneity, as if globalization doesn’t come with its own codes of conduct and as if global nodes are connected to each other under equal circumstances. Addressing Iranian contemporary art in relation to global contemporary art would, however, point out many problems, questions and confusions that complicate a sense of smoothly distributed access, a complication that is simultaneously shared internationally and among those who find themselves in some sort of orientation toward the art world, whether as artists, writers, curators or scholars. The art world here is that which is always on the other side, the outside.

[1] One consequence of this attitude is explicitly political. To put it simply, we need to question what it actually means to speak of critique and criticism in the context of a so-called developing country when major neoliberal institutions that used to champion the logics of globalization are now facing their pitfalls, both across Europe and more pointedly in North America? However, what’s important to notice is that this inquiry is simultaneously suspicious of a move to a local scale where matters are discussed exclusively in the sense of a very particular national compound. What is crucial about this particularity in terms of the Iranian condition is its relatively monoracial and  monoethnic setup. Or, more importantly, its denial and non-acknowledgement of its embedded alienness. In other words, the relationship to the outside is both relative (between Iran, for instance, and the liberal West) and internally driven (as it is more consciously in the West). Meaning that the ultimate goal of making some sort of kin or, at least, conscious relationship to the outside is to drag forward the internally alien entity. Whether a national or racial one or not, this entity isn’t to be dropped or done away with while it might not lead to any sort of enablement if addressed initially and in itself… It should therefore be wrestled with as the centerpiece of a larger process of figuring out how to navigate across the different inflections of making relationships with the outside. The internal matter might feel prior. But this priority is in fact an inflection of a sense of lagging behind, that is, coming before… But if it follows the outside, the latter phase, it means that we’re doing something political with time, we’re making it possible for a situation where “the last word… comes first,” as Deleuze put it once. Instead of getting locked up in the retroactive embodiment of an introverted entity which comes late and is left behind and is only sublated to a state of priority in an ultimately conservative concentration on ethnonationalism, for instance, we should look forward to bringing about a historical short-circuiting proactively. This is to engage with global politics beyond a sense of geopolitical schemes, and thusly attend to critique in a more actually embedded sense. This can be understood, I’d suggest only in passing, as an ethnofuturist engagement with chronopolitics which, although irrelevant to our discussion here, comes with its own caveats…

[2] This (chrono)political aspect of critical practice makes it clear that this is simultaneously a question of different institutional formations, and this is the second consequence that follows a reorientation of the underlying relationships of criticism. Institutional settings, of course, produce their corresponding institutional figures. Lacking institutions, then, leave a gap unfulfilled by its demanding figures. In a short essay from some five years ago, the art critic and regular contributor to frieze magazine Sam Thorne pointed out the almost always “hyphenated” figure of the art critic: the artist-critic, curator-critic, gallerist-critic, theorist-critic, scholar-critic, historian-critic and so forth. So who is the critic? What are the institutional intersections that enable criticality by letting the figure of the critic basically make a living off practicing criticism? Speaking of institutional relations, we should remember that for quite a long time, there has been a wide gap between private commercial galleries and state-funded public institutions in Iran. But this gap is being bridged these days by a handful of emerging non-profit institutions that are founded in often large scales on the grounds of the private sector. (An example would be the Pejman Foundation that after almost two years of securing its presence in the art scene by some sort of parasitic strategy of branding, finally opened its own major exhibition space in last December in the building of an abandoned beer factory from the pre-1979 years. The inaugurating exhibition was also a solo show by the French-Algerian artist Neil Beloufa who was also commissioned to produce new works for his exhibition at Pejman Foundation.) So, at the more recent end of the ongoing process of establishing relationships to the outside, a more viable ingredient of the Iranian art scene seems to allude to potentials for a range of institutional practice rather than to a critique of institutions or their productions.

On this note, I’d like to evoke a 2005 essay by the theorist and artist Andrea Fraser where she argued for a move from institutional critique, or a critique of institutions, to an institution of critique, to settings that enable and hold together discourses of criticality. I think, the more important task, then, which is a task of the future and its changing sociopolitical and cultural climates, is to situate criticism in a larger landscape and to ask how can we nourish and foster forums, platforms and ultimately institutions that can somehow provide the “conditions of possibility” for critical discourse?