Currently in development, Passages is a multi-platform body of work that draws from real and imagined travelogues written during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries by Persianate travelers. Contact between the Persianate world (ethno-culturally diverse societies in south, west and central Asia and west and north Africa where, for several centuries, Farsi was the shared language of cultural production) and the West increased exponentially in this period and deeply influenced both sides. I am interested in exploring this history for the light it sheds on the emergence of modernity as a global exchange amongst cultures and peoples, and as the cultural/ideological corollary of colonialism. I am particularly interested in engaging with this history in order to imagine and construct alternative presents.
In its first layer, Passages would include a series of collaborative and participatory processes culminating in live durational embodied reading and writing performances. Excerpts from selected travelogues would be workshoped to develop critical responses and explore relations between vocalized text and embodied writing as live performance. Depending on the context of the performance, the reader might be an invited artist whose decolonizing work is in dialogue with my work or a volunteer participant from the audience. In the live performance I would be writing on large surfaces animated by and in response to the readings of the texts. Performances would be recorded and simultaneously streamed for remote audiences who would be able to interact textually. I am also exploring the possibility of involving a drummer (Persian, Arabic or Indian) as a collaborator in the performances to punctuate the reading/writing. Subsequently Passages would be developed into an installation consisting of multiple video channels and text and image works.
In Passages the multi-layered process would create a work whose complexity reflects the passage of time and the spatial, historical and cultural complexity of its subject. Approached as durational and embodied processes (rather than literary and dramatic), writing and reading create prime spaces for thoughtful and critical engagement. They produce an experience that is dialogic, time-based and multi-sensorial, is created live through collaboration and responsiveness to space and spectator, and, most importantly, resists conventional representational strategies and free the imagination from the centuries-long hold of dominant stereotypes. Collaborating with other artists opens the space for exploring intersecting histories and cultures toward new relations and understandings.
Some of my previous works that have developed similar complex methodologies include: Utopias in-Progress; Ephemeral Monument; The Book of Illuminations; and Headquarters: Pathology of an Ouster. For an early impromptu experiment in live performance of embodied reading and writing, view http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=of8zapm0XHU. My approach to embodied writing as performance was first developed in 2008 in Ephemeral Monument, and can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6BmKDPn92w as re-staged in 2013 at MAI.
I was awarded visual arts grants from the Toronto Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts in 2014 for my work in this project. My research is underway and documented on a dedicated web portal where subsequent processes and performances will also be housed: http://passages.subversivepress.org. I am currently looking for galleries, spaces and institutions that would be interested in hosting and co-producing one or more of the performances, ideally in Fall 2014.
My text selection and script development in Passages are built around a number of composite characters based on historical figures and existing travelogues and memoirs. Some of these historical figures are:
Sampsonia (aka Theresa and Theresia), a Circassian woman raised in the court of Fath Ali Shah, Iran. In 1607 she married Robert Shirley, an Elizabethan adventurer who traveled to Persia in 1598 in pursuit of trade relations. Starting from 1609, she traveled between Persia and England a few times with her husband.
Mirza I’tisam al-Din of Tajpur, Bengal, born c. 1730. He worked for years as munshi (secretary and translator) in the service of British East India Company, and traveled to England along with a Captian Swinton in 1765 to deliver a letter to the British court from the Mughul ruler of India. His is the first known travelogue of Europe written in Persian.
Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, born in Lucknow in 1752 of Perso-Turkish ancestry. Although he served in the East India Company in Bengal, he was never given a secure position. He traveled to Irland and then England in 1799 where he lived and wrote about the life and manners of the British in his Persian-language travelogue.
Ibrahim Sahhafbashi, born in 1874. He is credited as the first consummate photographer and filmmaker in Iran. He traveled to Europe a few times, including once with Muzzafar el-Din Shah during which trip he filmed several scenes of daily life in the West. He also traveled to the “New World” and his travelogue is the first one existing in Persian about the Americas.
Taj al-Saltaneh, born in 1884, one of the daughters of globe-trotting Qajar king, Nasir el-Din Shah. She was only a few years old at the time of her father’s third trip to Europe and never herself traveled there, but in her controversial memoir published in 1916 discusses her desire to travel to and imagination of Europe.
Joseph Emin, born in Hamadan, Iran in 1726. He traveled to England and in Europe extensively several times in 1750s and 1760s to secure support for the liberation of Armenia from Persia and the Ottoman Empire. He wrote and published his travelogue in English in 1807.
In much of my work I have been exploring language and ways of making its spaces and effects visible and visual. In Passages I am deeply interested in how textual transmissions and memory processes, past encounters and intercultural gaze have shaped and continue to animate our contemporary (gendered, always gendered) bodies. What roles did/do curiosity and desire play in inter-cultural encounters and the construction and projection of identities and alterities? How did/does travel construct/transform spectators/spectacles? How do we engage with silenced voices and repressed histories of modernity? Where in our contemporary culture(s) would we find their persistent presence? How could embodied writing (where body is at once the conduit and the site of writing), and embodiment in general, reach back in time to uncover and trace fault lines and project forward to mend fissures? How do we bridge aesthetic experience with social imagination? These questions inspire and animate Passages.