Pamela Karimi, Alternative Iran: Contemporary Art and Critical Spatial Practice (Stanford University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Pamela Karimi (PK): As an architect, I have always been captivated by the ways in which creative agents navigate diverse spatial environments, whether it be a gallery, a studio, the street, or a deserted urban landscape. However, it was my personal upbringing in Iran that served as the primary impetus for exploring how innovative individuals engage in a cat-and-mouse game with state authorities over spatial boundaries. My formative years in post-revolutionary Iran were marked by clandestine art and music lessons, held in private settings beyond the reach of government or public institutions. But as I delved deeper into investigating such spaces, I came to realize that the notion of a wholly “pure” underground was a misconception. There were, of course, some exceptions. In the 1980s, for example, many art events—especially those featuring Western music or women’s vocal performances—were held under entirely covert circumstances. However, the majority of creative—even politically daring—endeavors since the 1990s have occurred in areas that are not entirely hidden but are what I call loosely covert. It is within these interstitial zones, such as dilapidated homes, deserted factories, and abandoned urban locations, that alternative dreams and aspirations unfold.

In 2010 I read the late Svetlana Boym’s Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea, in which she argues that freedom is not a universal idea, but rather an ever-evolving concept that continues to shape our reality. What made it particularly poignant was the fact that, following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, many outsiders assumed that there was no freedom to be found in Iran. Yet Iranians, despite the odds stacked against them, have always been adept at carving out spaces where they can exercise autonomy.

Although the book primarily focuses on nonconforming curatorial projects, independent guerrilla installations, escapist practices, and tacitly subversive performances, it also features case studies that counterbalance the long-held presumption of a deep divide between the progressive art community and the state. Throughout the book, I identify the power of art to take a critical stance across semi-regulated and unregulated spaces, as well as regimes of appropriation and coalition.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

PK: Alternative Iran takes a unique approach to art history, eschewing the traditional focus on iconography and semiotics in favor of a narrative that uncovers the intricate, often obscured networks of spatial, economic, and political discourses that define the artistic landscape of Iran. The book argues that Iran’s alternative art scenes defy the global art economy with projects that prioritize interactions with people and sites rather than object-based work that caters to the gallery, museum, and auction circuits. Although ephemeral performances in unofficial, makeshift spaces may offer little financial reward or even no reward at all, they provide a glimmer of hope for a more democratic Iran. In alignment with the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, who has expounded on the concept of “hope,” I maintain that “hope” empowers Iran’s artistic labor and enables it to leave an indelible imprint on society over time.

While Iranian artists ensure the longevity of their movements through repetition of ephemeral artistic practices, they also face obstacles. The constraining factors, however, are not merely binary divisions imposed by external forces that are beyond the control of artists. For instance, some artists refuse to participate in government-run initiatives in Tehran, while keenly conforming to the rules of state-run events that showcase art from poor regions outside the capital. The boundaries between private and public and correlated economies are more complex than assumed. Some alternative art practices occasionally benefit from private sponsorships but use the money to promote a higher cause. Additionally, while alternative art practices often intend to benefit society, some critics within Iran view them as elitist. These are only a few examples to show how Alternative Iran avoids what anthropologists call the “romanization of resistance.” Instead, the book explores the intricate networks that underpin the production and perception of art in Iran, shaped by constantly shifting economic and political circumstances as well as diverse critical perspectives.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

PK: My work is interdisciplinary and takes into account the impact of economic, social, and political forces on art and architecture. My first monograph, Domesticity and Consumer Culture in Iran (2013), revealed that modernization in Iran extended far beyond the realm of politics and public life. As Iran teetered on the brink of modernity, the traditional tenets that had long defined the Iranian home began to erode, while the influx of new household goods gradually led to a notable shift in lifestyles. Drawing on a wealth of archival materials, the book shed light on the crucial role that private life played in the social, economic, and political contexts of modern Iran. It showed how Iranian families resisted official transformations by selectively appropriating aspects of their surroundings to assert agency.

As sociopolitical challenges escalated in the 2010s, I engaged in what I call “activist scholarship.” For example, I co-edited The Destruction of Cultural Heritage: From Napoléon to ISIS, a dossier of essays examining the reasons behind the destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East. Additionally, I organized the multi-media travelling exhibition “Black Spaces Matter,” in collaboration with community stakeholders, faculty, local experts, and students at my college. The exhibition highlighted the significance of abolitionist history in New Bedford, MA.

Alternative Iran is a continuation of my commitment to exploring pressing sociopolitical issues of our time. It delves into the intricate networks and discourses that define Iran’s art scenes, revealing that spatial constraints, political obstacles, and economic restrictions do not hinder artistic progress, but instead inspire unique artistic qualities. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

PK: The book is intended for a variety of audiences and readers. Most of the art forms that I discuss in this book belong to the art-historical category of post-studio practices, which encompasses socially engaged art, interventionist art, participatory art, collaborative art, and community-based art. Experimental music and theater are also addressed insofar as their encounters with alternative sites are of significance. Architecture is explored when the design process is symptomatic of a search for the creation of alternative spaces for art and everyday life.

Above all, Alternative Iran provides a distinctive documentation of the tangled histories of art and civil disobedience in post-revolutionary Iran, which are scarcely found in official archives, and have never been consolidated into a single volume in either Farsi or English. The book employs a variety of theoretical frameworks, from critical spatial theory to affect theory and ethnographic methods; its multidisciplinary approach makes it attractive not only to scholars in the fields of art, theater, music, and architectural history but also to those interested in anthropology and urban studies. 

While the freeform approach to art and community life may seem more prevalent in Western societies, I argue that it is also plausible in the global South, highlighting the ways in which traditional forms of art, such as ta’ziyeh passion plays, have influenced contemporary art practices. So, Alternative Iran will hopefully also captivate readers interested in the Islamic arts of Iran, by showing how non-traditional contemporary artists have co-opted these old practices.

J: What was one unanticipated revelation you encountered while writing your book?

PK: As I delved into writing Alternative Iran, I was faced with the challenge of grappling with a complex phenomenon: the co-optation of the “underground” by the state. While the 1980s and early 1990s allowed for unconventional art installations and performances in independent, underground, and loosely covert art spaces, the first two decades of the twenty-first century brought about major changes in control regimes and art economics. The state and other powerful entities appropriated techniques of covertness and brought aspects of the alternative into the limelight to regulate the creative community. This paradigm shift created a range of gray zones and push-and-pull games between the state and the art community. Alternative Iran presents instances of the Iranian authorities granting permission and even funding formerly “underground” art projects, paralleling the aggressive mimicry identified by art critic Gregory Sholette in the context of Western capitalism. 

Amidst these changes, I discovered that more established artists, curators, and theater experts refused to contribute or took part in limited ways, creating alternatives within alternatives. It was challenging to articulate this phenomenon, but it served as a testament to the determination of Iranian creative agents who have been producing dissident art for four decades. Through my extensive research on Iranian artists, I discovered that they possess remarkable endurance, particularly in situations where state actors attempt to co-opt their art. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

PK: Currently, I am working on two monographs. The first was not initially part of my plan, but I became involved due to my interest in how sociopolitical movements have affected Iranian art. The book explores the role of visual arts in this revolutionary movement through ten recurring themes or “acts,” and argues that protest art emerging from Iranian streets and public spaces is not just a pretense of protest but protest itself.

A slightly lengthier book project, tentatively titled Survival by Design, illuminates Iran’s role in the re-emergence of traditional green architecture during a period characterized by Iran’s oil boom and the first oil crisis in the Global North. It explores how a diverse and globally connected group of experts, including architects, planners, philosophers, and Sufi scholars, formulated a visionary plan for the future with a long-lasting impact both globally and within the architectural discourse of Pahlavi Iran and the ensuing Islamic Republic.


Expert from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 10-12)

The Ethos of Iran’s Alternative Art

[…] Iran has a long tradition of communal and interactive art that reaches back to premodern times. Oriented toward experience rather than objects, many of these artistic expressions materialized in the form of religious ceremonies during the lunar month of Muharram, notably the ta’ziyeh passion plays that narrate the tragic and heroic martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in the battle of Karbala in Iraq in Muharram of 680 CE. Ta’ziyeh means “consolation,” implying the blessing that performers are believed to obtain by dramatizing the events that led to the persecution of the Prophet’s family. While symbolizing the spirit of resistance against tyranny, the ritual drama is also shaped by the active participation of ordinary people. Nonprofessional actors are invited to contribute as both performers and spectators, and the way the story unfolds is spontaneous and at times improvised.

Hamid Dabashi writes that in ta’ziyeh, “[t]he stage is not really a stage, not because [those] who stage the ta’ziyeh are poor and cannot afford a proper amphitheater, but because the stage must be an extension of . . . ordinary realities. . .. Non- actors can frequent the stage easily, while the actors fall in and out of character without any prior notice.” Nor was participation in artistic expression limited to religious art and rituals. Naqqali (storytelling), Shahnameh- khani (reading of verses of the Shahnameh), roohowzi (layman entertainment performances), and motrebi (light music played on streets and at social events) were interactive and time- based entertainment art forms that, in their delivery, resonated with religious passion plays. This collective approach even extended to the high-ranking professional (miniature) painters of the royal courts: while one mastered the portrayal of the human body, another would be an expert in depicting foliage or animals, and so on. In fact, until the modern period and increased interactions with Europe, it was rare to think of art as a solitary pursuit.

Just how Iranians kept these traditions alive is not so clear. Today, many performance artists and theater experts strongly oppose any connections with the ta’ziyeh while acknowledging the influence of experimental theater directors Peter Brook and [Jerzy] Grotowski, who both traveled to Iran and performed there in the late 1960s and 1970s, during the Shiraz Arts Festival, launched by the Empress Farah and held annually from 1967 to 1977. Ironically, both of those iconic directors were captivated by the dramatic possibilities of ta’ziyeh performances that were brought into the spotlight at the fourth festival, which revolved around the theme of the “ritual.” As Brook explained:

I saw in a remote Iranian village one of the strongest things I have ever seen in theater: a group of 400 villagers, the entire population of the place, sitting under the tree and passing from roars of laughter to outright sobbing— although they knew perfectly well the end of the story— as they saw Hussein in danger of being killed, and then fooling his enemies, and then being martyred. And when he was martyred, the theater form became truth.

Brook would distill his experience into an experimental theater piece, Orghast, performed at the 1971 Shiraz Arts Festival, which was written entirely in a language invented by his collaborator, the poet Ted Hughes. As a contemporary review in the New York Times notes, the use of words that had no meaning— only rhythm, texture, tone— forced “the spectator to listen to the work as they would listen to music, and to watch the action as if it were a religious experience.” Grotowski, who visited Iran four times and closely followed the Shiite rituals, also used elements from the ta’ziyeh tradition to bond performers and audiences. Theater historian Daniel Gerould has written of how Grotowski’s actors became “celebrant[s] for the community of spectators, inciting them to take part in the rituals.”

Often Iranian performances, some featured in this book, draw on what the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht calls Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect or simply alienation), the theatrical device that intentionally distances audiences from the fictive narrative and instead engages them in real activities. With the exception of a few, Iranian performers tend to deny the connection between the Brechtian distancing effect and the ta’ziyeh. But several scholars, including Hamid Dabashi, have compared the dramatic value of distancing in conveying the strong moral principles associated with the ta’ziyeh, where performers do not “play roles” per se, but try to impersonate the protagonists and the antagonists.

This cross-fertilization—from Shiite performances, to European avantgarde theater, and back again in contemporary performances in Iran—provides an insight into the complex spectrum of influences on Iranian art. Ta’ziyeh props and their methods of assembly—and in particular, the temporary structures hastily assembled for the annual rituals of the month of Muharram— have also proved to be a source of inspiration. As will be shown in chapter 4, the same “rushed” building style (hey’ati; literally, of a delegation—referring to a delegation of devout men who quickly construct large-scale, temporary religious paraphernalia), which has become a defining feature of agitprops in Iran is also used by artists to make sarcastic commentaries on urban propaganda.