Interview: Gita Hashemi

Agricola de Cologne (AdC) interviews Gita Hashemi (GH)

—>
Gita Hashemi, a.k.a. exisle creations, is an artist, activist, educator, curator and writer. She currently resides in Toronto, Canada.

artist biography

—>

10 questions—->

AdC:
You belong to an art scene using new technologies, you are an active representative of a genre dealing with Internet based art, called “netart”.
When those artists started who are active since a longer time, the education in New Media was not yet such advanced like nowadays, often they came form different disciplines and had an interdisciplinary approach, those young artists who start now have partially this more advanced education, but rather not much experience in other disciplines.

GH:
I see a certain factual validity in this statement, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with its spirit. Yes, most artists who were already active when “new” technologies became more accessible brought into their experimentation (and experimentation was the dominant character of “netart” at the start) the experience gained from working in already existing disciplines and media. In this we were no different from the earlier generation of artists who started working with video as art medium when that technology became accessible. Computer/internet technology is native to the younger generation and many of them may not have had rigorous training and prolonged experience in older technologies and disciplines. But I think they are actively participating in breaking their disciplinary boundaries – often dictated by techno-centric concerns – as we were. I don’t think the older generation has a monopoly on experimentation and innovation. As for the first part of the statement – my being an active representative of “netart” – I have other reservations that I will discuss later in my response to your questions.

1.
AdC:
Tell me something about your educational background and what is influencing your work?

GH:
I fell in love with mathematics in high school, and had it not been for the 1979 Iranian Revolution I would have probably studied mathematics in the university. But I took the entrance exam for the School of Fine Arts at Tehran University instead and studied visual arts focusing on graphic design. Graphic design and painting – perhaps propelled by the popularity of graffiti and leaflet making, media of protest and the most accessible information and communication technology of the time in Iran (yes even more accessible than the cassette tape that some consider to be the dominant technology of this revolution) – were somewhat idealized by my generation when we started our art training: these were the media of mass mobilization: education, imagination, communication. My first and one of the most empowering moments as an artist was in my first year university when I participated along with a number of other students of mixed years in painting a massive mural on the gray cement walls of the School of Fine Arts. The walls faced busy streets and we worked in full public view, led by Iranian painter and educator Hannibal Alkhas who now lives in exile in California and is still as productive and loved and respected as ever. I was one of only two women who worked on this mural and I painted the figure of a woman in a red dress towering above and ahead of a crowd, one arm holding a flag raised above her head and the other gesturing forward, leading the people’s march. A sentimental take and a stylistic cross between Eastern European painting and Mexican murals that the revolutionary left in Iran idealized at the time – perhaps still does to some degree. This was only a few months after the overthrow of the Shah and the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. We still carried a strong sense of making history, and I wanted that history to include the women, not clad in black veils in the back, as we were invariably portrayed, but in power and in the lead. But the air was politically charged and the Islamic government had already started to clamp down on the left – broadly defined for the moment to also include “Marxist-Islamists”. One of the first decrees issued by Khomeini, on March 7th, 1979, mandated the veiling of women. Assaulting and arresting unveiled women on the streets wasn’t yet a routine occurrence (though it happened increasingly more frequently), but all government buildings refused entry to unveiled women. The air was politically charged and obviously the woman in my mural was read as provocative and offensive to fundamentalist Islamic values. For a few months, my mural was painted over with counter slogans and otherwise defaced every Friday when the university grounds were taken over for the Friday prayers that brought several thousand people to the campus. Every week I re-painted the woman in the mural. I left Iran in 1984, four years after the Islamist Cultural Revolution that shut down the universities for three years (during which all of the murals were painted over) for ideological cleansing. I was expelled from the university when it was re-opened. Actually, with only a few exceptions, all of the students who had worked on the mural project were expelled. So was Hannibal, I believe, or maybe he had already quit. Later, I studied graphic design, illustration and print-making for a few years in a state university in California, but before finishing my degree I decided to leave the United States during the build-up to the first war on Iraq. The political climate was suffocating and I felt as threatened and hopeless there as I had a few years earlier in Iran. I think these events have been most influential in my education as an artist and my understanding of my role as a public intellectual. In the first few years of my residence in Canada, I worked as an art administrator in the artist-run sector where I also gained a broad interdisciplinary grounding in a number of disciplines and practices, including theatre (mainly inspired by Brecht’s theatre and Boal’s theatre of the oppressed). Theatre is probably as far afield as I’ve gotten from “media-oriented” work. I started learning electronic and digital media primarily on my own and through formal and informal workshops (and I continue to do so to date), and later in a post-secondary intensive summer programme in “multimedia” which primarily aimed to train the creative labour force for newly budding commercial multimedia industry. Actually, quite a few Canadian independent artists went through similar programmes (there were very few dedicated university programmes then) as part of their transition to “new media”. Most of this training was focused on technical skills. Most of us who “transitioned” around that time had to supplement this training with the experience and theoretical/conceptual grounding we already came with and/or continued to develop through our engagement in the contemporary art scene outside such training programmes. Interestingly, within a short time many of this group were recruited by budding university programmes to develop the “new media” curricula. Most of these programmes initially had an experimental character that tried to bridge between contemporary art and new technologies. Though the experimental character seems to have taken a back seat in favour of a focus on technology, current university curricula (at least from my experience in North America) do not astray too far from this initial ground (hence my discomfort with drawing a fixed line separating the older and the younger generation of artists). Since 1996 most of my artistic production has been in the field of “new media” including a few “netart” pieces and CD-ROMs. But I also maintain a foot in “traditional” media. (I’m putting these terms in quotation marks to indicate that I find them vague, unsettled and unsettling.) I completed a graduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies where I focused on feminist and post-colonial theory and historiography, political studies and creative practice. My education continues through my continued – though precarious – engagement as a university educator teaching theory and practice relating to art and information and communication technologies (including but not limited to digital technologies), and, of course, through my various activities as artist, curator, cultural and political activist.

2.
AdC:
The term “netart” is widely used for anything posted on the net, there are dozens of definitions which mostly are even contradictory.
How do you define “netart” or if you like the description “Internet based art” better,
do you think your work belongs to this specific genre,
do you think “netart” is art, at all, if yes, what are the criteria?
Are there any aesthetic criteria for an Internet based artwork?

GH:
It’s interesting to note that it’s not just the definition but the very terminology we use that is still in flux. Netart. Net.art. NetArt. Net-art. Internt art. Internet based art. Art on the internet. I’m sure somebody has already written the etymology of all of these (please send me the link if you know of any). I know that these terms emerged in distinct contexts and circles. I also know that there has been a persistent chorus of voices saying “netart” (feel free to replace the term between the quotes with any other word you like) does not exist or is not art or is new or is not, or … All this indicates to me is that the discourse is in flux, and, more importantly, that the ground is contested. As long as there are debates the art is alive, and we are living it. This seems fairly obvious to me. In the past several years many critics, theorists, historians and practitioners have written on the history, pedigree, concepts, forms, genres, dynamics and (sadly, too soon) cannons of internet culture, and more specifically on “internet + art” (my formulation and preferred usage). I think that’s all necessary and useful, but as an artist I’m more interested in thinking about purpose (I prefer this term over ‘intention’) and practice: The why and the how. The what is important, of course. Description is necessary for understanding. But, generally, many descriptions put too much emphasis on the technology and not enough on the context and content. Internet – digital networks in general – is now nearly ubiquitous. Like all mass information and communication technologies, the internet has become a way we do things. There are a lot of problems with the fast spread and infiltration of this disciplinary/prescriptive technology into all aspects of the contemporary life. I think we may need a different forum for discussing the problems, for example, the now-unfashionable and un-trendy “digital divide” and other issues that have fallen off the debate list as more and more problems – like surveillance, censorship, private and restricted ownership, etc. – are becoming visible with the rapid development and implementation of digital information and communication networks. As an artist living in a wired and wireless affluent North American urban centre I don’t have to go too far and work too hard to get on and at the “Internet.” It’s almost inevitable that I explore, in one way or another, the potentials of these technologies, and experiment in ways of using them to facilitate communication and interaction, representation and participation. I can’t say that in this work I personally subscribe to any fixed aesthetic criteria or that I’m even willing to acknowledge that such criteria exist or need to exist. That tends to work into the disciplinary/prescriptive paradigm that already rules the political, economic and socio-cultural dimensions of the “Internet”. In a way, it is precisely the lack of such criteria – thankfully, we haven’t managed to fix the culture yet – that makes “art + internet” interesting and exciting to me, and I dread the day – almost already upon us – when we fix all the conventions and loose the experimental spirit and aesthetic diversity. My intention here is not to glamourize and diversity experimentation as the end-all be-all of art, but to say that what I value most is the ways in which art can subvert dominant/hegemonic cultures for the purpose of surfacing and envisioning alternatives: alternative stories, alternative ways of communication , alternative social organizations, alternative visions of the future, alternative politics and ethics. By the same token, I tend to resist labels such as “internet artist” or “net artist” as definitive of my own work. I care first and foremost about the purpose of what I do. In my work conceptualization and methodology – in other words, idea and technology/medium – tend to follow rather than pre-define the purpose. I guess that might make me an “intermedia” artist. But really, I think this term too has outlived its usefulness to some extent already.

3.
AdC:
What kind of meaning have the new technologies and the Internet to you,
are they just tools for expressing your artistic intentions, or have they rather an ideological character, as it can be found with many “netartists”, or what else do they mean to you?

GH:
I think I might have already answered this in my response to the previous set.

4.
AdC:
Many “Internet based artists” work on “engaged” themes and subjects, for instance, in social, political, cultural etc concern.
Which contents are you particularly interested in, what are the subjects you are working on and what is your artistic message(s), if you have any, and what are your personal artistic visions for future artworking (if you have any).

GH:
Obviously there are certain themes and focus areas that seem to be of particular interest to me, but I really prefer not to name these, partly out of the fear of being pigeon-holed and labelled by/because of them, and partly because I really don’t have a fixed focus. My concerns change in response to my experience of life and what I perceive to be of utmost individual and/or collective urgency at a given moment. There are many urgencies today, and while none of us can possibly respond to all of these, any one of us can easily list several urgent concerns all competing for our attention. I tend to pick what to work on based on my available resources and how effective I think my interventions – subject to my limitations – can be in a given area. Presently, I find the rise of militarism, fascism, corporatism and fundamentalism – intricately and fundamentally connected phenomena – and their profound social, cultural and environmental ravages to be my topmost concern. My work, therefore, tends to deal with one or another aspect of these phenomena.

5.
AdC:
“Art on the net” has the advantage and the disadvantage to be located on the virtual space in Internet which defines also its right to exist.
Do you think, that “art based on the Internet”, can be called still like that, even if it is just used offline?

GH:
First, as I said before, I’m not much interested in the debates over terminology and definition. That said, I’m not sure I understand your question. If you are pointing to whether or not being in the “virtual space” in “real time” is the determinant conceptual/aesthetic consideration in “art + internet”, I don’t think so. I think time and space have porous borders. The “virtual space” has never been completely independent of and discontinuous with “real space,” as the present time is never completely discontinuous with asynchronous time (past, future). Drawing arbitrary borders may be useful for the purpose of classification, but classification cannot be the way we decide on the merits and relevance of artistic practices. What’s interesting to me in your question is your passing mention of “use.” To me use is a central artistic and curatorial consideration, both as in use value and in ways of using. I think these are areas that more urgently need our critical attention, especially because technologies and their uses are proliferating and developing so rapidly.

6.
AdC:
Dealing with this new, and interactive type of art demands an active viewer or user.
and needs the audience much more and in different ways than any other art discipline before. How do you stimulate the user to dive into this new world of art?
What do you think, represents an appropriate environment to present net based art to an audience, is it the context of the lonesome user sitting in front of his personal computer, is it any public context, or is it rather the context of art in general or media art in particular, or anything else.?
If you would be in the position to create an environment for presenting this type of art in physical space, how would you do it?

GH:
I think I may be over my days of crusading to carve and legitimize spaces for “art + internet” or to try to envision what those spaces might be. Personally speaking, that was my concern in mid-1990s. I know that there are still reticence and resistance within some institutional art boundaries and art audiences toward current artistic uses of internet technologies. But institutions and audiences are by no means homogenous entities. The internet has become so much a part of our political economy and cultural milieu that I’m not entirely sure to what extent we need to concern ourselves with creating special environments for presenting the diverse range of artistic practices that use the internet, unless we do so because such kind of labelling and partitioning are needed to access a certain pool of funding, as seems to have increasingly become the case in recent years now that there is a certain cultural cache attached to being on the technological “cutting edge.” In the Canadian experience – in my observation at least – such approaches have made art making dependent on and subject to the ideological and economic whims of the funders, that is government and corporate entities. I think we need to insist on creating more public and cultural spaces for art (in fact, more public spaces as more and more public spaces are privatized) but we also need to rethink the ways we use existing spaces and even question why we tend to want dedicated and special spaces for art as these seem to turn into mausoleum and sanctuaries for dead and endangered species after a while. I guess what I’m saying is that we should resist letting the technology determine how we define and use a particular environment. It seems to me that many artistic experiments with recent networked technologies have been successful precisely to the extent that they’ve challenged customary uses of existing environments and their prescribed boundaries. I’d rather see physical space – finite by definition – be used for multiple purposes. I’d rather let the purpose of the art making determine its space of dissemination and forms of engagement. As for how best we can encourage audiences to engage with art, I think this is a primary concern in all areas of art making: In the deluge of spectacular culture – which uses creative skills and approaches to sell commodities to consumers and consumers to corporations – how do we encourage people – variously envisioned as audiences and consumers – to engage seriously with art? I’m not sure I have a definitive answer to that. I just know that I am as interested in using everyday spaces – the street, the community centre, the school, the park, etc. – as I am in using dedicated art spaces, depending on the kind of audience I wish to engage in my work.

7.
AdC:
As Internet based art, as well as other art forms using new technologies are (globally seen) still not widely accepted, yet, as serious art forms, what do you think could be an appropriate solution to change this situation?

GH:
I don’t agree with the premise of this question. In a way the question itself betrays a certain rooted-ness in rigid boundaries of art that have long been crossed, or maybe it denotes a certain context that I have long distanced myself from. The Palestinian Balata Film Collective, based in Balata Refugee Camp, uses new technologies to disseminate their work and to network globally. “Art + internet” has been taken seriously by established art institutions – e.g. Whitney and the like – for at least a decade now. There is an increasing number of venues across the “globe” – festivals, gatherings, etc. – all seriously dedicated to the dissemination of “art + new technologies.” I am not suggesting by any means that everybody everywhere has equal access to these forms of art, be it as producer or as audience. What I’m trying to get at is that in my North American context – and increasingly more in other geographic contexts – the technology is already too far spread and we have already devised too many ways of using it seriously. Moreover, being taken seriously by a certain group, particular sector or biased discourse has really never been a primary concern for me. I myself don’t take seriously certain practices and art works – regardless of their use of media and technologies – because I don’t find them relevant or challenging. It seems to me that this question relates to the previous one: How do we engage more people more seriously in independent art? I’m suggesting, and in this I’m repeating myself, that we need to rethink our paradigms and move beyond dominant techno-centrism. There are other concerns and urgencies.

8.
AdC:
The Internet is called a kind of “democratic” environment, but the conventional art practice is anything else than that, but selective by using filters of different kind.
The audience is mostly only able to make up its mind on second hand. Art on the net might potentially be different. Do you think the current practice of dealing with Internet based art
is such different or rather the described conventional way through (also curatorial) filtering?
Do you think, that speaking in the terms of Joseph Beuys, anybody who publishes anything on the net would be also an artist?

GH:
I think it’s only a certain utopian discourse of the internet that still calls it a democratic environment/technology. Yes, there were/are certain democratizing potentials inherent in the technology, but no more nor less than any other technology. They just have manifested themselves in different forms and at different scales. Anybody can pick up a brush and paint. Does this make painting democratic any more or less than “art + internet”? The discourse of “art + technology” is not fundamentally discontinuous from other art discourses. And neither are its institutions – educational, production and dissemination venues – and practices discontinuous with those that already existed. There was and still is a certain push in the independent art world toward self-publishing and self-curating – in other words, towards bypassing institutional mechanisms and customary practices – and the new technologies seem to facilitate this drive/desire at a larger scale, probably, than before. But the economy of scale is a relative economy not one of fixed measures. Along with the proliferation of expression – traditionally considered a corner stone of “democracy” – has come a fragmentation of social and cultural spaces so that it’s not totally certain to me whether we are in fact reaching more people or more people are accessing art than was possible before. Certainly more people – assuming that they have the hardware, software and connection – seem to be expressing themselves or partaking of other people’s expressions using these technologies. And certainly progressive movements and formations have managed to use the technology effectively for various purposes – be it organizing mass street demonstrations across diverse geographic locations or getting out to more people stories that remain suppressed by the corporate-owned media or organizing virtual sit-ins, petitions, etc., although this form of social organizing and dissemination is already under attack by the recent internet governance and intellectual property regulations. I tend to think about this in terms inspired by Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the effects of reproduction technologies on art. In my reading, one of his central theses is that the proliferation of expression does not necessarily lead to a change in relations of power. “Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. ” This seems quite relevant to and fairly accurately descriptive of the present moment even though we are now talking about internet technology rather than film technology (not to suggest that these technologies have not already been integrated). My point is that it is political and ethical concerns that ultimately determine the functions and uses of any mass communication technology (or any other technology for that matter).

9.
AdC:
Do you think, the curators dealing with net based art should have any technological knowledge in order to understand such an art work from its roots?

GH:
I don’t know what you mean specifically by “technological knowledge”, but, speaking as a curator myself, I think it is crucial for curators and critics of any art form to have a close familiarity with its technologies (i.e. tools, techniques and practices). This is not to say that curatorial practice must limit itself to considerations of technology alone.

10.
AdC:
It is planned, to re-launch
JavaMuseum – Forum for Internet Technology in Contemporary Art
www.javamuseum.org in 2007 in a new context, very likely even in physical space.
What would be your personal wishes and expectations connected to this re-launch ?

GH:
I’m not sure I have any “personal” wishes in this regard. I’m more interested in seeing how this endeavour develops in its own specific context. I will then think about how I might tap into it in my work. Thank you, Wilfried, for this interview and for your persistent efforts to network and collaborate through Java Museum, whatever physical or virtual form it takes.

AdC:
Thanks for taking your time.