Shaghayegh Cyrous with Kathryn Barulich and Christopher Squier (time/difference: Part I)

The self taken in its absolute isolation is meaningless...
   - Hannah Arednt (on Heidegger), Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954, p. 180.

time/difference is a series inspired by the exhibition Eleven and a Half Hours. We also hold near and will continue to focus the political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s ideas concerning the space of a singular person who exists between each and all people; that by being born, we are involved in a plural situation, a community, in which any action of oneeven breathcannot exist without another. This project is open in content and form, doing the deliberate work of unraveling of thought, exchanging ideas, and collaborative breath and production. An interview between Shaghayegh Cyrous, Kathryn Barulich, and Christopher Squier on the exhibition Eleven and a Half Hours sets time/difference in motion.

Shaghayegh Cyrous is an artist and curator whose interactive time-based investigations, participatory projects, and video installations create a poetic space for human connections.

Eleven and a Half Hours is an exhibition focused on how Iranian and American residents carry on living despite varying levels of political turmoil that maintain a state of unrest. The collaboration between Dionne Lee and Shirin Abedinirad, two female artists in parallel political and geographical locations, showcases an attempt to resist the law of inertia by entering into a conversation and sharing experiences of discomfort in a sanctioned world. This exhibition is curated by Shaghayegh Cyrous as the culminating project of Aggregate Space Gallery’s annual intensive gallery fellowship and internship.

The closing of the exhibition also launched the Friction/Function Performance Series. Marina Fukushima responded performatively to the works in Eleven and a Half Hours.

This interview has been edited and excerpted for clarity and brevity.


ACT I. A garden


Christopher: What is the work like in the exhibition? What are the main conceptual threads and how do the works engage the space and interact within it?

Shaghayegh: It came to the concept of a show of two women that they were American and Iranian, whose countries have had a lot of conflicts still with each other. I gave them this prompt:

In 1687, Isaac Newton proposed his First Law of Motion, the law of inertia: A body at rest tends to remain at rest, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Bodies will continue in their current state, whether at rest or in motion, unless acted on by a greater outside force. As political tension between Iran and the United States increases, ongoing struggles for world power and resources directly impact everyday lives. The laws of inertia and resistance apply to both places despite the time difference (Eleven and a Half Hours, UTC-7 hours, time zone PDT).

As long as something is still, it's still unless you force it, or it keeps going unless you force it to stop. The whole way of interaction became interesting to, specifically in daily life. Then, during working and finding artists, I realized that Shirin and Dionne, their works, deal with  identity, and they go around politics to talk about what exists, especially as women.

Christopher: As a curator for the show, in some ways you brought two artists together, but you've also organized the production of the work.

Shaghayegh:  I think about how they can display it in relationship to each other and we can use the space for bringing out the concept of the work in the  best way. I spend a lot of time in Aggregate, researched about previous shows that happened, each time the space is totally different in terms of how the gallery is interested in displaying art and thinking about its conceptual aspect. That was actually a challenging and a fun part. It took a long time for me to decide, but in the end, their work came together really nicely. I have to say Conrad and Willis Meyers the gallery founder were also really supportive on the decisions.

Installation photo: Shirin Abedinirad, Isfahan Song, 2013. Video installed underneath the stairs, Aggregate Space Gallery, Oakland, CA, 2017. Image: Watch the video.


Kathryn Barulich: Tell us more about the installation in the galleries. The logic of movement through the space, and association of works. This sort of one-to-one relationship, like the blowing piece, with two monitors next to each other, or the projection of two skies on the wall, the two monitors showing orange poppies across from each other.  Can you tell us a little more about this, and the general “mounting” of this installation, as a whole?

Shaghayegh: I thought a lot how their works could be in relation and conversation with each other. I was thinking about it as a site specific video installation that helps the spectator to move their body, their eye levels, and hearing to be able to understand the meaning. This activation was important to me and I got inspired from both Shirin and Dionne’s works to make this happen. For instance," The Isfahan Song" by Shirin Abedinirad, where she sat in a public space in a mosque in Isfahan and say nonsense words. This piece place under the stairs in a tiny hole. At first, it is not noticeable, but after a while the viewer will follow the audio and get curious about the hole with light under stairs. This was not a easy move but the way Shirin made the video was not also the easiest action.  

During my time at Aggregate (January-September), I started to understand the space and thought so that the spectator would perceive the concept by moving their bodies and view point. The interaction between two of their videos was really important to me in terms of how people can experience what is between two women from different part of the world with all these stereotypes exist between two countries. They are both going through similar challenges that they also experience in their own daily life. That's why everything was a in two as it is a conversation between two women.

Before Getting On With the World Again , Shirin Abedinirad and Dionne Lee. Image: Aaron Rosenstreich, courtesy of Shaghayegh Cyrous.

Before Getting On With the World Again, Shirin Abedinirad and Dionne Lee. Image: Aaron Rosenstreich, courtesy of Shaghayegh Cyrous.

The sky and the poppies also and the road path with mirrors was also their last collaboration; it creates the in between and merges space. The skies in Tehran and Oakland are the same, but as you focus the clouds are moving in different directions from each other and how a mirror road or the path that came from Shirin's work reflect the two sky at the same time. The mirrors on the floor reflect the projected sky of Tehran and Oakland at the same time. When you walk the sky is always reflecting the mirror ahead of you: the sky that you never reach while you are experience walking through it. We thought a lot about the natural elements that is reflecting both countries at the same time. The poppies were also the elements that exist in both countries as a poetic symbol. California poppies and poppies in Iran come up in many poems from both countries as a symbol of life.

The blowing the other hand, was also a conversation and interaction between two. I thought a lot about fire and the blowing power and pressure. You can blow and create fire or you can turn it off, it depends on your pressure and power, the exact law of inertia.

Christopher: There's the direct theme of inertia and opposing forces or how forces come together. The other thing you’re playing with is the concept of time, with the title Eleven and a Half Hours.

Shaghayegh: Yes, that’s the time difference between San Francisco, here, and Tehran, or Iran in general.

Christopher: Why use that phrase and why bring the focus not just to the two places but to the difference in time. It gets at being literally almost opposite one another.

Shaghayegh: This also goes back to my own practice. When I moved here to San Francisco, I couldn't go back to Iran for almost six years. This desire for communication through technology became really interesting to me. I couldn't go back and the only thing that I could have was Skype calling, or using different social media to be able to connect home.

It was interesting to me because Tehran is  Eleven and a half hours in the future, and we are in the past. In my mind, I was playing a lot with the idea that they are in the future and we’re in the past, but not necessarily politically, so those kinds of parallels and those kind of time differences were really interesting to me.

A work that I made last year was also about how I can bring together a sunrise and sunset and sync them because of the time differences. I could have a sunrise of Tehran projected on the wall while I could have the sunset of San francisco simultaneously from the window.  

Christopher: Can you describe that work?

Shaghayegh:  A Window to Tehran actually came out of, I had this vision of how, with this 11 hours and a half, not every time in the year, but in October, you can actually sync the sunrise and sunset of San Francisco together through Skype. It’s exactly the same time that the sun goes up in San Francisco that the sun goes down in Tehran.

Without borders, you can see the sunrise and sunset in one time, the same as in one other part of the world. I love that. So that time difference became really interesting to me in terms of how I am  working  with friends of mine who are artists  We have a joke that we're working 24 hours, because when they are sleeping, I’m working. When I was working, they were sleeping. This happened with Shirin. The night is day, the day is night. So this became interesting to me and that's why the name of the show became Eleven and a half hours.

Christopher: Communication and language are a major theme in the exhibition. I'm wondering, how are you interested in language, in what aspects of language, and with the artists speaking different languages, there’s an integration into language, or a first introduction into it that happens. Maybe it's miscommunication in some ways too.

Shaghayegh: I have different projects for each of these questions. I don't want to get out of it, but I think all of them are woven to each other in a way.

I had been working with the idea of translation and mistranslation, politically and in my daily life. When I moved here, it was really amazing because it was the first time in my whole life I was seeing different cultures at one place. It was great  to me that everyone was talking in different languages here. I’d never seen people from different cultures closely, because in Iran, for a long time there were no tourists or they were very rare—not right now for sure, but back then, at least for eight years, there were no tourists. When I came here, having a different culture and background, people were so interesting to me and I wanted to know about them.

Then, it was a negotiation between Iran and the P5+1 power countries that were talking to each other about having—they were negotiating—but most of the time after they negotiated, there was some press and news that came out that Iran was saying that, “Oh, it was a mistranslation. We didn't mean that!”

It was so amazing to me how the negotiations extended because of some mistranslation or miscommunication, at least as an excuse. It’s more complicated than that for sure, but that was a very interesting part for me.

I experienced that with one of my friends, Magdalena Härtelova, who is from the Czech Republic. We started a language project, creating a space by talking to each other in our mother tongues. Whenever people entered, everyone had to speak in their mother tongues. We had a situation that we were talking to each other with nine totally different languages for three hours. We were estimating that after 30 minutes, people would think, “What the hell is this,” but it extended to three hours. At the beginning, it was funny, but then we started to understand each other through our expressions rather than the words.

Shaghayegh Cyrous/Magdalena Jadwiga Härtelová,   The Language Project  , VIP Golden Class Language Breakfast, Jane Addams Hull House Museum, Open Engagement, Chicago, IL, 2017. Image courtesy of Shaghayegh Cyrous. 

Shaghayegh Cyrous/Magdalena Jadwiga Härtelová, The Language Project, VIP Golden Class Language Breakfast, Jane Addams Hull House Museum, Open Engagement, Chicago, IL, 2017. Image courtesy of Shaghayegh Cyrous. 

I wanted to experiment with that, to see if people can talk with each other or communicate with each other if they don't know their languages or if they don't know anything about each other or their cultures.

The Skype thing exactly came out of that. I wanted the artists to exchange poems, because Dionne was really into poetry and she read a lot of poems from black women. And Iran is so well known for poetry. It's a country of poems. It was interesting how, although they didn't know each other, they started putting words into their mouths, each other’s mouths, about poetry and how literature was interesting to both of them. I think that was the heaviest part of the language project I would say.

Kathryn: Poetry is like another language, in the way you look at the words in a different way. I find, when I was learning French, it's easier to read poetry than something else because it is written in a different sense than academic or informative texts.

Shaghayegh: Also, I feel like some poets, not all of them, but most of the poems are really honest and came out of a new perception of seeing society or a political situation and how you can explain it purly or even with nature. I mean, Iran is mostly like that. You're talking a lot about nature, but you mean something political is happening in society. I love this. We have this in Persian, where you are saying something but it’s meant totally differently. I think it's really interesting in terms of how both of them are talking about that, even though Dionne, at the beginning, did not totally understand what was happening. At least Shirin knew English, but Dionne didn’t [know Farsi]. But those expressions are so interesting. If I want to talk in Farsi, I'm a totally different person, or if I want to express myself in Farsi, I am relieving  more than an English. The poetry exchanges were asking them to try out expressions.

Kathryn Barulich: To finish the interview and look toward the future of the larger time/difference project, I wonder if you have any thoughts on artist/activist Tania Bruguera’s 2015 project where she encouraged people from her neighborhood in Havana, Cuba to read pages from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism for 100 hours. The book spoke directly to Cuba’s own regime, and was considered an artwork and political act. I know you just finished up the Escuela project at YBCA with Bruguera and other guests instructing artists and thinkers on how to make Arte Útil, a movement coming after socially engaged art.

Would you tell us about this project in relation to the class, and Bruguera’s other work and practice of arte util in general, and any ideas for work you anticipate creating in the future along these lines.

Shaghayegh: I had a great experience at Escuela which happened to be in YBCA this summer. As I studied MFA Social Practice at CCA for two years, Escuela was a great addition to my practice. Ted Purves who passed away recently had touched many lives and inspired many artists who also helped a lot for Escuela to happen. I went to study Social Practice because I felt social practice artists have many commonalities with my conceptual thinking. The Escuela was art, activism, caring about society and not only talking about the issues but how you can create a structure with your creativity to make changes.

I loved to learn about Tania Bruguera’s ideas from her and how she processes and uses them in real life. She believes in how artists can use their creativity and create a system to make changes and not sit aside and be totally away from the society. Especially in this political moment,  I think we need this more than ever. If authorities and governments are not taking a side of people and they just play politics to gain more power and create borders that divide people, someone should stop and change this power dynamic. She believes artists can change their role to initiators, and give  people power for this changing process. I am totally in agreement with this idea that bigger changes will start from solving the tiny, specific issues and I think it is really amazing that art can make this happen.

Shaghayegh Cyrous was born in 1987, in Tehran, Iran, where she began her artistic practice with painting, urban installation, performance, and photography. In 2011, Shaghayegh moved to the Bay Area due to political tensions in her home country. Since then, her work has dealt with the experience of cross cultural communication and translation, addressing predicaments of estrangement and distance caused by political and cultural power dynamics. Through her work, she seeks to bridge these distances and create opportunities for exchanging thoughts and words between everyday people who are the victims of political decisions. Her projects incorporate interactive time-based strategies such as social practice, socially engaged art and participatory performances, as well as digital technologies such as video installation and live video chats, to create poetic spaces and opportunities for human connection.

In 2017, Shaghayegh graduated from the Master of Fine Arts Social Practice program at California College of the Arts, and the Escuela Arte Util fellowship program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts of San Francisco. Her current focus is on the compression of time and space resulting from digital technologies such as Skype, Line and Telegram. These technologies enable her and others like her to connect “live” to their home countries, reflecting the desires of exiles and immigrants for communication with homelands that exist beyond their present times and locations. Her most recent work explores how digital media plays this critical role in the lives of exiles and immigrants, forcing them to navigate two different spaces – the physical and the virtual.

      - Bio by Charmin Koh

Kathryn Barulich, co-founder and editor of Dissolve, works as a writer, researcher, curator, gallery manager. Her research interests focus on how nationalism and language influence contemporary visual culture and politics. In 2015, she completed a Masters degree in History and Theory of Contemporary Art from San Francisco Art Institute, after studying French and Art History at Fordham University. She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Christopher Squier is an artist and curator living in San Francisco. He is a Dissolve editor, SFAI graduate, and currently serves as Curatorial Associate at Kunst Works.