Mazyar Lotfalian on his new book, What People Do with Images

Interview by Michael Fischer

Michael Fischer: It is so great to see your book finally coming out in print: we’ve been talking about it in seminars and conferences for so long, we now have a chance to look back and appreciate what it accomplishes. First of all, how would you like to see it positioned vis-a-vis three different literatures: the literature on the anthropology of art, the literature on Middle Eastern art, and the literature on Iranian art? How would you characterize the state of these literatures and how does your book move their debates forward? In particular you make an interesting argument against the legacy Orientalism that lingers in museums and among curators.  

Mazyar Lotfalian: The anthropology of art in the 1990s impacted Middle Eastern art, an older field belonging to art history and architectural history. Critical studies in architecture, semiotics studies, and ethnographic studies ushered the study of Middle Eastern art into making visual and aural fields as central as other fields of studies. This change has been gradual. 

Literature on Iranian art has had a similar trajectory. I think the international fame of Iranian cinema had the most impact on visual studies. It became more accessible for the academic visual studies departments to imagine Iranian films as a legitimate material culture to understand Muslim culture. By now, a few academic hires claim Iranian cinema as their field. 

Ethnography as a method of understanding visual culture has been lagging behind critical studies. My effort is threefold. To develop what it means to do ethnographic studies of visual culture. To situate visual anthropology within a media ecology that avoids studying art in isolation. And to theorize and understand to role of technology in the production and circulation of art. 

Orientalism, or the contemporary version, neo-Orientalism in visual representation, has continued, especially after 911. I present a framework that goes beyond Orientalism and situates the work of art on a performative ground. Two additional concepts I use, after Rancière, are dissensus and heterology. They help us understand the work of art not in terms of what they try to oppose and replace but how they try to neutralize, say, the Orientalist effect. The focus of the study would be the heterogeneity of forms and performativity of acts. 

Michael Fischer: You are one of the few anthropologists to have been able to go to Iran every year from 2001 to 2019. One of the features of the book is that it bridges Iran and Iranians in the diaspora rather than grounding itself in either one or the other. It also bridges the worlds of performance art, museums, galleries, biennales or major art shows, and new media. Usually commentaries situate the art either in Iran or in the international arena, but you seem to refuse that dichotomy, so how do you see the field of action that you are addressing?  

Mazyar Lotfalain:  Yes, I think this is precisely the contribution that the book is trying to make, a broader understanding of ecologies of mediation rather than focusing narrowly on technological devices. The production of work of art is distributed across spatial and political boundaries. Iranian art projects that are conceived and produced in New York and Tehran are both similar and different. The nuances and essential details come to light by ethnographic engagements. 

There is excellent work emerging under the category of the Iranian diaspora. However, there is a sense that Iranian diaspora means spatially things that happen outside Iran. This perception has been reinforced by increased difficulty in traveling to Iran. 

 My yearly trip to Iran had a cumulative effect ethnographically speaking. I was able to rethink my writing frame many times, which defined my book sections; the book is event-driven, sort of a bottom-up approach. During the time of political polarization, we need to use ethnography creatively.

Michael Fischer: You draw on several key theorists to help orient readers, but you seem to push the arguments they make beyond where they left them. Can you say more about what in your field of attention stimulated you to go beyond where they had left things. As I read the book, you draw particularly on W.T.C. Mitchell, Jacques Rancière, and Henry Jenkins, all of whom seem to be operating very much within a European or Euro-American frame. How does the cross-continental Iranian focus challenge them or maybe extend their lines of thought? I’m particularly interested in your notions of circulation and secondary appropriation across art forms as a kind of transformative politics, analogous to the way, perhaps, that the velocity of money and capital changes their force or social role.  

Mazyar Lotfalain:  I have used several western theorists, as you mention, who have tried to explain visual cultures through theories of images, aesthetics, politics, and the role of technology. I was interested in W.T.C. Mitchell’s concept of images as not just representational but things that come to life by human interaction. Rancière helped me understand the role of politics in visual culture as both police and dissensus. Jenkins shows the role of new media technology as a convergent modality where one work becomes the base for another; this illustrates digital technology well. I would caution, after Rancière, that the convergent modality remains within the politics of policing versus dissensus. 

The process is certainly not the application of one theorist to my existing data. Still, to work with ethnographic material and borrow what works best to understand them is the work of translation. In addition, cultural interpretation in this work is tuned to the hermeneutics of Iranian culture, not within its national boundary but in a vast spatial-temporal-political that exists. 

The expansion of Iranian art sales in Dubai, Beirut, Berlin, New York, and the Tehran art market caused the supply of Iranian art to increase by the mid-2000s. The increase in the velocity of exchange in art (just like money) means that art is exchanged into more hands. Iranian art is circulating at a rapid rate. I want to get to what you are asking, the value of political interest, which is not separate from the money interest. Iranian art entered the world of politics in the West and Iran. Many museum venues, art galleries, and media events invested in Iranian art as “the better side of Iranians” to appropriate art as an expression of resistance. There are layers of values that are attached to this political interest. What I talk about in the book as a poetic space is where the real transformative power lies. If the artists and others who create critical works join forces, their works can take advantage of this opportunity and bring about potential political changes. 

Michael Fischer: Rancière’s notion of politics as dissensus as opposed to policing seems to be quite productive in your work. You argue that the underground in Iran is not to be understood as analogous to samizdat in Russia, and indeed that it is not so much oppositional as neutralizing easy oppositions, and instead moves the field of what is possible to say or do beyond the ambiguities of the security state. Can you give an example or two?  

Mazyar Lotfalain:  In the book, I talk about the work of Neshat, whose work well exemplifies the production of dissensus. Her initial work mainly focused on women, veils, and calligraphy, all possible signifiers of the Orientalist discourse. In these early works, she tried to subvert them. The veil didn’t turn into a sign of weakness, and the calligraphy represented feminist poetry. Circulation of these images, one might argue, has one value, that of Orientalist discourse. The circulation generated diverse debate among Iranians, in both diaspora and Iran, about their potential as a critical discourse, including Orientalist intent. The formation of dissensus among the Iranian artists has been productive. What Rancière calls heterology in political art replaces the Orientalist lens. Heterology refers to the distribution of the sensible meaning of art as a performative network that makes the political art fulfills its potential instead of the message of any element. 

Michael Fischer: Say something about how the cafe-and-gallery spaces in Tehran have evolved over the past twenty years, as Iran first liberalized under Khatami, and even under Ahmadinejad, and how conservative politics is now affecting things. And say something about how these spaces are in tension with the art-markets that promote commodification.

Mazyar Lotfalain:  The so-called liberalization of the public space started with Khatami, although the architect was Rafsanjani towards the end of the Iran/Iraq war. Cafe houses sprang up first in Tehran and then spread to other cities in the 2000s. They were a marker of the wealth of the middle class at the time and the opening of the political space. A number of the cafe houses were combined cafe galleries, which oriented the young population towards art, broadly understood. Interestingly, the families of renowned literary authors owned several cafe galleries. These changes in public spaces continued during the Ahmadinejad administration as well, although there was more restriction. The art market, cafe houses, galleries, and the government sanction through censorship shaped the aesthetic sensibilities – this has been the dialectic of aesthetic and culture-making (farhang-sazi). 

The opening of cafes and galleries has continued today. Two factors affected their livelihood. First, the sanctions on Iran and the drop in oil prices impacted the number of Iranians who frequented them. Secondly, the pandemic caused many of them to close down. For instance, cafe 78, a pioneering cafe gallery, closed down in 2021. Since its inception, in 2003, this place has become an educational and aesthetic space for young Tehranis. With the inauguration of a unified conservative government, we are yet to see the outcome of this sea change for the art world in Iran. 

Michael Fischer: Can you also describe the changing populations of arts students over the last two decades, and maybe the ways in which their training is changing.  

Mazyar Lotfalain:  As I mentioned, the liberalization of the late 1990s accompanied a widening of the middle class. The consumption among the middle class increased. As I discuss in the book, art education outside universities, which existed before, was even more sought for social activity. There was a gender component in it as well. It became more acceptable for the families to have their male children to pursue art education. Families began to see art as a potentially viable career direction. There was a clear connection to the art market. Art students learn from the maters outside the universities. In a way, art education has happened outside universities which the government controls. Social space for art education is different than, say, engineering in this way. 

Michael Fischer: Do you want to draw attention to particular art projects that illustrate most sharply the arguments in your book. I’m thinking of maybe Sohrab Kashani and Azadeh Akhlaghi as key examples among those we have not yet mentioned.  

Mazyar Lotfalain:  he two projects, one by Sohrab Kashani and the other by Azadeh Akhlaghi, are significant for a few reasons. These projects, at the outset, are made transnational that connects Iran and its diaspora. Kashani’s project works on the practice and politics of communication through technology. Akhlaghi’s project activates the past through staged images of a contested history of Iran and its diaspora.

Kashani in Super Sohrab incarnated in himself with Superman-like attire. Super Sohrab goes to many places (especially in Europe) and tries to establish person-to-person communication between himself and through their networks by his standards, to establish a people-to-people conversation. He has also collaborated with an art professor, Jon Rubin of Carnegie Melon University, on three projects similar to Super SohrabKubideh KitchenPortals, and The Foreigner. All of these involve Iranians and Americans using technology or food to experience cultural tastes from each other, precisely the exchanges that governments have prevented. These are great examples of how aesthetics and politics combine. 

Akhlaghi, through staged photography, provokes the truth about the events of the past. Historical images that have been taken out of circulation, often hidden or disappeared, reappear, staged, and real for people. They lose their ambiguity or anonymity, and people may recognize them as real voices or as having a sense of reality. One of her staged images is that of the champion wrestler, Takhati. It has reportedly been used in an annual memorial of his death in place of, or as, a real photograph of him. Akhlaghi’s staged photos have even been used in the media without reference to the artist, presented as real. There is a sly game or dance between artistic ambiguity and the discursive hegemonies re-curated by the media or by Takhati’s supporters.  

I refer to this emergent change in the ‘distribution of the sensible’ throughout the book, after Jacques Rancière’s work on aesthetics and politics. Rancière connects aesthetics to politics, where people’s political participation relies on their perceptions and senses of visibility/invisibility, inclusion/exclusion. These modes are regulated by the distribution of the sensible, a regime that makes what is visible and invisible possible. Rancière distinguishes between police and politics: police maintain the distribution of social classes while politics challenges that status quo. Politics is a way for the excluded to disturb established power. The two phenomenological changes (Islam and digital technology) are challenging the established regime of the sensible. What Iranian artists show us in transnational space and the realm of aesthetics and politics is emblematic of this sea change. 

I think that not only Iranian artists but generally artists from the Muslim cultures have been producing works when politics of representation challenge the regime of visibility/invisibility. In this context, the tension between police and politics generates a fertile ground for political art. 

Michael Fischer: Finally, do you want to say something about the writing strategy that the book adopts. I find the way you use your own first-person experiences not only to guide the reader in the ethnographic examples, but also to explain the theoretical concepts, to be extremely inviting especially for use in the classroom.  

Mazyar Lotfalain: I wanted to give a phenomenological sense of the events through my experiences. The book did not have an outline at the outset. The events that I engaged with, ethnographically, from 2003 to 2015 became chapters. There is a temporal limitation to writing about a phenomenon that is taking shape right before your eyes. The book is not about everything. But there is a depth that this writing strategy affords. 

You mention the possibility of using the book as a teaching tool. Each chapter provides critical tools to discuss an event. For instance, the chapter on digital activism will give an in-depth understanding of “convergent mode of production,” however, the internet tools have evolved ever since 2009 that I wrote that chapter. Readers need to apply the conceptual frame to today’s events. I found this writing style interesting in that it acknowledges the temporal structure and yet gives a fuller picture of the event at that historical moment. This way of anchoring leaves opens the possibility of going back and generating new interpretations. 

Roxanne Varzi on her ethnographic novel, Last Man Underground

Cover of Last Scene Underground by Roxanne Varzi

Harvey Stark: What inspired you to write Last Scene Underground and what one or two main things do you hope your readers will come away with?

Roxanne Varzi: I was most inspired by the theater I saw while I was doing fieldwork in Iran, but it wasn’t until I was I was teaching visual anthropology at SOAS in London and was writing a lecture about how Jean Rouch’s documentary, Les Maitres Fous morphed into Jean Genet’s The Blacks and it occurred to me that there was a  connection there that I could write about as an article in terms of how the Blacks is later interpreted in Iran by a young theater director, Hamed Taheri for a post-Revolution audience. I was interested too in what sorts of shifts happened in order to both radicalize and protect the budding theater movement in Tehran in the late 1990’s just after Mohammed Khatami’s election when the first real alternative artistic space in the Iranian public sphere began to form. Mostly I was interested in theater praxis as a political and a personal transformative art… How did practicing theater change the individual?  What did it mean for notions of community and nation?

The theater being done in Iran in 2000 inspired me to think about ways that I too, as an anthropologist, could push through boundaries–disciplinary, genre, political and personal to write about resistance, creativity and hope. To that end I wrote and re-wrote this ethnographic novel about a group of young Iranian college students who form an underground avant-garde theater group and, defying censorship and using other forms of social resistance and attempt to put on a play.

I want readers to come away with a greater understanding of the complex cultural world that is Tehran. I’d also like them to question their own notions of selfhood and identity and to think about ways that we perform and practice those.

For the anthropologist reader I hope Last Scene Underground is also a meditation on the possibilities and limitations of ethnography as a genre and as a medium at this political juncture. The book mediates and channels lives through the filter of other lives, political and theoretical and disciplinary frames.  It is also a political act in that it directly addresses the issue of censorship and the inability for an anthropologist like myself to write ethnography openly and hope to continue to work in Iran.

Harvey Stark: One of the most fascinating things about your work is the liminal space that exists between ethnography and fiction. How do you want your readers to understand this space?

Roxanne Varzi: Throughout my first book I used a variety of narrative voices, from the academic first person, to the essay to fiction, creating characters and events while staying within historic and ethnographic facts based on my own research. I also used passages from my ethnographic field notes and from entries quoted verbatim from either my diary or from the journals of my interlocutors. This second book experiments further with a new ethnographic form for my research findings. An ethnographic novel that is at once an act of experimentation and one that will protect my subjects and my future as an anthropologist of Iran. Writing ethnographic fiction allowed me to stay away from political specificities that might link a particular theater moment or individual to a particular political moment in time, be it 1999 (the dormitory protests in Iran) or 2009 (the green movement) while maintaining the ethnographic specificities at the heart of this theater movement.

The book has two convergent narratives that are wound around one another.  There is the “fictionalized ethnographic story” and “the director’s notes” — a fictional notebook kept by a fictional theater director but with real notes that are a culmination of my research, which ranged from the people whom I interviewed and plays that I read and watched to my reflections, observations and interpretations. They assume the responsibility of the writer and anthropologist to inform the story. In short, they are partially a version of my own notes from the field but fictionalized to the degree that nothing was included that an Iranian character like the director would not he himself have known or read.  They contain what as well would ordinarily be found in academic footnotes.  This allows all information equal footing…nothing is hidden away underground as it were in a smaller font and easily ignored as footnotes and endnotes often are.

Throughout is a story about representation, about manufacturing knowledge and lives, censorship and the role of creativity in social change.

Harvey Stark: Can you tell us about the complex and nuanced attitudes your characters have toward religion. 

Roxanne Varzi: Religion is a very personal practice that has been made public by virtue of folks living in a religious republic. I wanted to reclaim the notion of spirituality, which is the individual relationship with God and not one that is necessarily filtered through a nation-state, or even a strong religious organization.

Harvey Stark: If pressed, what one character in the novel do you most identify with?

 Roxanne Varzi: Hooman, the director. The director’s notes are my notes…and I think I secretly I have wanted to write and direct plays my whole life. My first theater class was as a child in Iran… and now this year, as an anthropologist I am doing a rough reading at the AAA of my first play ever (not counting a children’s play I did as a theater director at a summer camp in the Sierras!). It feels like a very natural progression and not at all strange that it would be my field, anthropology, where I could make this happen!