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Identities in Movement - Kurosh ValaNejad

co-curated by Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi and Daniela Veneri

"Witnessing an injustice, and the delusion that I can make a difference, moves me into action - not as a peaceful protester but as an angry art maker. When a movement hits a wall, art can extend the protestors language - making it less likely for a peaceful march to develop into riots and looting.- Kurosh ValaNejad

Kurosh ValaNejad, Irreverence in Another Paradise (The Freedom Sculpture, revisited). Courtesy of the artist.

Kurosh, what projects that you are working on excite you most and why?

The following works-in-progress address the complex issue of enlightenment. Abstracted from real life, using metaphors, and retold as allegories, I embed any insight into the more accessible form of Art. When successful the viewer shifts from being the reluctant audience of a preacher to a corroborator on an adventure. This approach can garner compassion for the other.

Irreverence in Another Paradise, a public art intervention. The Freedom Sculpture presents an opportunity to bring attention to the lack of freedom in Iran. I want to transform it, at least momentarily, into the Freedom Memorial. In the middle of the night or perhaps in broad daylight while disguised as a Beverly Hills Parks and Rec maintenance worker, I have added the names of political prisoners currently in Iranian prisons with silver-colored vinyl letters to the silver portions of the sculpture. I hope the sculpture creator and sponsors see my non-destructive, and fully reversible intervention as a proposal rather than criticism; as I would like them to permanently etch the names of prominent Iranians who were executed or assassinated to the inner gold portion of the Freedom Sculpture.

Previous related work: Irreverence in Paradise. Handful of Pranks I pulled while living in Aspen, Colorado, 1989-1996.

Simorgh in the 21st Century, an animation work, brings stories about Simorgh, the mythical flying creature, that span 5000 years. She is beautiful, with magical tail feathers. She is inherently benevolent, able to heal man and to purify nature. And in stories of Sufi mysticism, she is divine. But life has not been easy in the 21st century. Crimes against humanity, and by humanity against Nature, have been relentless. She is burnt black from a constant barrage and plucked out of magical feathers. Her patience with us, and her protective bubble from us, has worn thin. Desperate to survive, she takes a dive. The divine must divide. No longer together, we fear the other.

The storyboard for the opening sequence can be seen here.

Included on the webpage is information about the technique I developed which utilizes a robotic arm to scratch the animation directly onto pre exposed film. I do this to imply that the birds made the film as a warning to mankind.

For the second phase of the project, and to expand the short into a feature length film, I will ask 30 storytellers to each represent a bird from Edward FitzGerald’s translation (1889) of The Conference of the Birds (1177) by Attar.

There is also Gender ID, a Multimedia Performance. From crib to coffin, we are put in boxes. At birth, our gender is recorded by checking one of two boxes; male or female. Just out of the womb, we are assigned a lifetime of expectations and limitations. While growing up we see variations in others and in ourselves. This personal sense of gender, our gender identity, forms at the age of 3 and raises the number of options from 2 to 32+. This larger set of gender glyphs is all-inclusive. It is well-meaning yet myopic, as the box that describes you, may ultimately define you.

For some, it is not enough to think outside the box; they must live there.

You can see more info and previsualization for the performance on my blog. Previous Related Work: Gender (2012) a virtual fun-house mirror intended for display at/near public bathrooms. It reflects viewer-participants as male and female symbols, suggesting gender is fluid, and not binary as indicated at these facilities.

Kurosh ValaNejad, Simorgh in the 21st Century. Courtesy of the artist.

What are your most important goals as an artist?

There are practical goals and ambitions. Without daily practice and financial security ambitious work is unattainable. Beyond that, social impact is my primary goal.

What moves you in your work?

Witnessing an injustice, and the delusion that I can make a difference, moves me into action - not as a peaceful protester but as an angry art maker. When a movement hits a wall, art can extend the protestors language - making it less likely for a peaceful march to develop into riots and looting.

Who are your most important partners and interlocutors?

During the research phase of a project, subject matter experts and librarians/curators are critical. And during development of its look and feel, frank feedback from trusted voices gives me confidence to move into production. Depending on the type of project, user testing with the target audience helps determine if the work is ready to roll out, or to go back through another iteration of development.

Which of the feedbacks you received over the years have been particularly meaningful for you or surprised you most?

I used to feel embarrassed after showing new work. My mother, Joan ValaNejad, suggested removing some of the personal details to allow my message to be more universal. Years later, while discussing this topic with curator Barbara Bloemink she suggested I invent details, rather than remove them. She convinced me to give it a try when she pointed out the embellished facts of a successful artist whom she knows intimately.

I can not maintain a lie, so I shifted instead to the use of metaphor in my most personal work. This is exemplified in Bani Adam, a series of works about a personal tragedy. In the first 30 seconds of my Lighting Talk, I explained that I became a filmmaker from the necessity to my story.

What makes you feel free to create your art?

Art and the freedom of expression is a human right. But having the time to make art is for the privileged. As an independent artist, I can make works of moderate scope. I am not free to create more ambitious projects without collaborators and sponsors.

What kind of contribution would you like your work to have?

I would be very happy if my work was used as a template for similar work, I am delighted by the success of The Cat and the Coup, but also disappointed that our model for documentary games has not been used by other game designers working in NonFiction.

What are you most proud of The Cat and the Cup?

I am a product of an Iranian-American relationship. My father is Iranian, my mother is American. This story is really the story of an interaction between America and Iran. What I am proud of is that the game talks about democracy in Iran and helped Americans understand that whether they realize it or not. Democracy is not returned to the Middle East and it is just so ironic that the two countries that pride themselves on the modern form of democracy are the ones that toppled one basically for oil. It's a complicated thing but we were able to get a message out that was seen positive.

Kurosh ValaNejad, Gender ID. Courtesy of the artist.

What unites past, present and future in your artistic practice?

For me, the cosmopolitan culture of Tehran in the 1970’s represents a respect for the past and the idyllic vision of the future.

What kind of relationship do you feel should exist between aesthetics and ethics today?

Ethics is taught alongside Engineering courses in Nuclear Engineering programs. I know art can be as powerful in generating energy and in destroying lives. Ethics and an understanding of the consequences should be required for art students.

How can arts and culture make an effective social contribution in our time?

Art often gives us our first glimpse into other cultures. We learn about new traditions through some form of Art. Art triggers curiosity by highlighting the best of a culture. In this way we develop a respect for other cultures.

What is your feeling about what the art system and institutions should do in order to respond to current societal issues?

I do think that institutions are reacting and learning about the past. But currently it seems like, as with "black lives matter", there's been a sort of overt response by institutions by just actually apologizing for their past, not for just basically being unaware that they were their systems, whatever designed to be discriminatory.

I do feel like that change is happening. There is this awareness because there's so much going wrong, it seems like the planet is reacting and trying to get rid of us, it's sort of a reality check for all of us right now. I think it is totally cool to ask an artist to contribute to current issues. Artists have their visions and if you ask an artist they do know what they're free to pick, the topic that they want you in and out.

A global pandemic, due to Covid-19, has been spreading all over the world. We have seen cultural centers, educational programs, schools, museums, exhibitions, arts and cultural sites closing and being forced to change their plans. What is your feeling about how this emergency will influence our approach to producing, sharing and experiencing the arts?

Those institutions may have been slow to adopt new technology, but the shift started before the pandemic. Museums no longer demand to own unique items and many have virtual exhibits online. The pandemic and the stay at home solution encourage this way of experiencing. We can't sustain this for very long and will find ways to get out to experience the world. Robotic avatars provide a solution. I have been fantasizing about visiting Iran this way and hope the COVID quarantine will accelerate the development of this technology.

Has the ongoing pandemic changed anything in your approach to your own artistic work?

I think that for me the root of it really is all related somehow to what is happening in the US, with the political and social issues. It's so bad. I am realizing that I'm really an activist pretending to be an artist. If you look at the work I do there is always this message that drives, I have to try to get a message out.

My true intentions are the activists part of the message that I'm trying to sort of relay, if I have some insight in something, if I see some injustice in the world, whatever it is. It happens all the time. I feel like I could use art to sort of get that message out, as that is probably an easy way to sort of take complex ideas and simplify them through our sense.

Does that mean that you feel like you would not be an artist if you did not see injustices in the world?

No. I think you have the soul, the drive, of an artist or you don't, and I think whether you call yourself artist or not doesn't change what you are. I sort of always had this approach to language through art, in a creative way, whatever that means.

Kurosh ValaNejad, Free Nasrin, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Where do you see current shifts in the transformation of the contemporary art system, where do you see risks and challenges and where do you see opportunities?

We are quick to reward the use of new technology in Art. These early works ultimately are seen as low hanging fruit. And we also are quick to abandon technology as new ones become available. I see opportunities in reinventing old technology using new components. Similarly, Art laboriously made using analog processes are opportunities for contemporary artists who can mimic some aspect of the original genius using digital and automated technology. I expressed this idea using an example fro my own work (Duel Citizen, Dual to the Death,) in an interview about my Milestones at USC.

If you were able to change one or two things in the area of responsibility of artists, art curators, institutions, cultural producers, exhibition platforms, what things do you think would create the most value and benefit for all?

Institutions: Remove the boxes for Gender, Race, Nationality, Age ... in grant proposals.

Curators: Remove the requirement of an artist statement. The Artwork is the statement.

Artists: Let go of old ideas of ownership and copyright - they hinder natural evolution. Demand acknowledgement, not money.

For All: Don’t dismiss an entire effort because of its technical flaws, or cultural faux pas. Look for any advances in thought and process. Judge its potential.

Is there anything that I didn't ask you that you would like to mention?

There are kinds of ways that as an artist I can get a message across much better than words. You can take a game do this really well to make it take complex systems and abstract them to their basics. You can learn so much from just that sort of abstracted version of it. That's what an artist does, it's an entry point into a topic. You know that it might not change some policy but it gets people talking about it, so it creates some excitement around that topic and they have to work it out. It can sort of motivate, inspire.

What keywords resonate with you right now in relation to our interview?

For me they would be culture, activism and sort of "art versus fact". I think the best way to teach is not to sort of tell someone that's it you have to memorize but to really have them practice to participate.

Kurosh ValaNejad, Self-portrait.

Kurosh ValaNejad is an Iranian-American who was born an American-Iranian in 1966 in Tehran to an Iranian father and an American mother. In 1977 he moved to America, to Midwest City, Oklahoma, and now lives in the West Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. From 2001-2016 he served as a lead artist and art director at research labs at the University of Southern California where he helped develop virtual reality experiences to advance remote learning, non-fiction video games (The Cat and the Coup) and a meditative interactive installation by Bill Viola (The Night Journey) These projects were supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the USC Annenberg Center, and the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences.

As emerging technologies push Cinema back towards its roots in the theater, Kurosh has shifted his focus to live performance. HisBody Scrub device adapts real-time rendering and motion capture technologies used in video games to amplify body language and empower stage performers and dancers. And when used in Art installation, his series of virtual fun-house mirrors encourage spectators to become the spectacle. In 2016 Body Scrub, Lego was added to Field of Play, a long-term exhibit at The Strong National Museum of Play.


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