Tuesday, 28 September 2010

SMALL CHANGE: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.

 Social media can’t provide what social change has always required. 
by Malcolm Gladwell
The New Yorker
At four-thirty in the afternoon on Monday, February 1, 1960, four college students sat down at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. They were freshmen at North Carolina A. & T., a black college a mile or so away.
“I’d like a cup of coffee, please,” one of the four, Ezell Blair, said to the waitress.
“We don’t serve Negroes here,” she replied.
The Woolworth’s lunch counter was a long L-shaped bar that could seat sixty-six people, with a standup snack bar at one end. The seats were for whites. The snack bar was for blacks. Another employee, a black woman who worked at the steam table, approached the students and tried to warn them away. “You’re acting stupid, ignorant!” she said. They didn’t move. Around five-thirty, the front doors to the store were locked. The four still didn’t move. Finally, they left by a side door. Outside, a small crowd had gathered, including a photographer from the Greensboro Record. “I’ll be back tomorrow with A. & T. College,” one of the students said.
By next morning, the protest had grown to twenty-seven men and four women, most from the same dormitory as the original four. The men were dressed in suits and ties. The students had brought their schoolwork, and studied as they sat at the counter. On Wednesday, students from Greensboro’s “Negro” secondary school, Dudley High, joined in, and the number of protesters swelled to eighty. By Thursday, the protesters numbered three hundred, including three white women, from the Greensboro campus of the University of North Carolina. By Saturday, the sit-in had reached six hundred. People spilled out onto the street. White teen-agers waved Confederate flags. Someone threw a firecracker. At noon, the A. & T. football team arrived. “Here comes the wrecking crew,” one of the white students shouted.
By the following Monday, sit-ins had spread to Winston-Salem, twenty-five miles away, and Durham, fifty miles away. The day after that, students at Fayetteville State Teachers College and at Johnson C. Smith College, in Charlotte, joined in, followed on Wednesday by students at St. Augustine’s College and Shaw University, in Raleigh. On Thursday and Friday, the protest crossed state lines, surfacing in Hampton and Portsmouth, Virginia, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the end of the month, there were sit-ins throughout the South, as far west as Texas. “I asked every student I met what the first day of the sitdowns had been like on his campus,” the political theorist Michael Walzer wrote in Dissent. “The answer was always the same: ‘It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go.’ ” Some seventy thousand students eventually took part. Thousands were arrested and untold thousands more radicalized. These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.
 The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change. “You are the best hope for us all,” James K. Glassman, a former senior State Department official, told a crowd of cyber activists at a recent conference sponsored by Facebook, A. T. & T., Howcast, MTV, and Google. Sites like Facebook, Glassman said, “give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Some time ago, I said that Al Qaeda was ‘eating our lunch on the Internet.’ That is no longer the case. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation.”
These are strong, and puzzling, claims. Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet? Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all? As for Moldova’s so-called Twitter Revolution, Evgeny Morozov, a scholar at Stanford who has been the most persistent of digital evangelism’s critics, points out that Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist. Nor does it seem to have been a revolution, not least because the protests—as Anne Applebaum suggested in the Washington Post—may well have been a bit of stagecraft cooked up by the government. (In a country paranoid about Romanian revanchism, the protesters flew a Romanian flag over the Parliament building.) In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”
Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.
Greensboro in the early nineteen-sixties was the kind of place where racial insubordination was routinely met with violence. The four students who first sat down at the lunch counter were terrified. “I suppose if anyone had come up behind me and yelled ‘Boo,’ I think I would have fallen off my seat,” one of them said later. On the first day, the store manager notified the police chief, who immediately sent two officers to the store. On the third day, a gang of white toughs showed up at the lunch counter and stood ostentatiously behind the protesters, ominously muttering epithets such as “burr-head nigger.” A local Ku Klux Klan leader made an appearance. On Saturday, as tensions grew, someone called in a bomb threat, and the entire store had to be evacuated.
The dangers were even clearer in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, another of the sentinel campaigns of the civil-rights movement. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee recruited hundreds of Northern, largely white unpaid volunteers to run Freedom Schools, register black voters, and raise civil-rights awareness in the Deep South. “No one should go anywhere alone, but certainly not in an automobile and certainly not at night,” they were instructed. Within days of arriving in Mississippi, three volunteers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—were kidnapped and killed, and, during the rest of the summer, thirty-seven black churches were set on fire and dozens of safe houses were bombed; volunteers were beaten, shot at, arrested, and trailed by pickup trucks full of armed men. A quarter of those in the program dropped out. Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.
What makes people capable of this kind of activism? The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. “All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.
This pattern shows up again and again. One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the nineteen-seventies, found that seventy per cent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization. The same is true of the men who joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at core, strong-tie phenomena. The opposition movement in East Germany consisted of several hundred groups, each with roughly a dozen members. Each group was in limited contact with the others: at the time, only thirteen per cent of East Germans even had a phone. All they knew was that on Monday nights, outside St. Nicholas Church in downtown Leipzig, people gathered to voice their anger at the state. And the primary determinant of who showed up was “critical friends”—the more friends you had who were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest.
So one crucial fact about the four freshmen at the Greensboro lunch counter—David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil—was their relationship with one another. McNeil was a roommate of Blair’s in A. & T.’s Scott Hall dormitory. Richmond roomed with McCain one floor up, and Blair, Richmond, and McCain had all gone to Dudley High School. The four would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night in Blair and McNeil’s room. They would all have remembered the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott that same year, and the showdown in Little Rock in 1957. It was McNeil who brought up the idea of a sit-in at Woolworth’s. They’d discussed it for nearly a month. Then McNeil came into the dorm room and asked the others if they were ready. There was a pause, and McCain said, in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another, “Are you guys chicken or not?” Ezell Blair worked up the courage the next day to ask for a cup of coffee because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school.
The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.
This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.
In a new book called “The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change,” the business consultant Andy Smith and the Stanford Business School professor Jennifer Aaker tell the story of Sameer Bhatia, a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur who came down with acute myelogenous leukemia. It’s a perfect illustration of social media’s strengths. Bhatia needed a bone-marrow transplant, but he could not find a match among his relatives and friends. The odds were best with a donor of his ethnicity, and there were few South Asians in the national bone-marrow database. So Bhatia’s business partner sent out an e-mail explaining Bhatia’s plight to more than four hundred of their acquaintances, who forwarded the e-mail to their personal contacts; Facebook pages and YouTube videos were devoted to the Help Sameer campaign. Eventually, nearly twenty-five thousand new people were registered in the bone-marrow database, and Bhatia found a match.
But how did the campaign get so many people to sign up? By not asking too much of them. That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf. You can get thousands of people to sign up for a donor registry, because doing so is pretty easy. You have to send in a cheek swab and—in the highly unlikely event that your bone marrow is a good match for someone in need—spend a few hours at the hospital. Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.
The students who joined the sit-ins across the South during the winter of 1960 described the movement as a “fever.” But the civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion. In the late nineteen-fifties, there had been sixteen sit-ins in various cities throughout the South, fifteen of which were formally organized by civil-rights organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and CORE. Possible locations for activism were scouted. Plans were drawn up. Movement activists held training sessions and retreats for would-be protesters. The Greensboro Four were a product of this groundwork: all were members of the N.A.A.C.P. Youth Council. They had close ties with the head of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter. They had been briefed on the earlier wave of sit-ins in Durham, and had been part of a series of movement meetings in activist churches. When the sit-in movement spread from Greensboro throughout the South, it did not spread indiscriminately. It spread to those cities which had preëxisting “movement centers”—a core of dedicated and trained activists ready to turn the “fever” into action.
The civil-rights movement was high-risk activism. It was also, crucially, strategic activism: a challenge to the establishment mounted with precision and discipline. The N.A.A.C.P. was a centralized organization, run from New York according to highly formalized operating procedures. At the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the unquestioned authority. At the center of the movement was the black church, which had, as Aldon D. Morris points out in his superb 1984 study, “The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement,” a carefully demarcated division of labor, with various standing committees and disciplined groups. “Each group was task-oriented and coordinated its activities through authority structures,” Morris writes. “Individuals were held accountable for their assigned duties, and important conflicts were resolved by the minister, who usually exercised ultimate authority over the congregation.”
This is the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.
This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations. Wikipedia is a perfect example. It doesn’t have an editor, sitting in New York, who directs and corrects each entry. The effort of putting together each entry is self-organized. If every entry in Wikipedia were to be erased tomorrow, the content would swiftly be restored, because that’s what happens when a network of thousands spontaneously devote their time to a task.
There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?
The Palestine Liberation Organization originated as a network, and the international-relations scholars Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Calvert Jones argue in a recent essay in International Security that this is why it ran into such trouble as it grew: “Structural features typical of networks—the absence of central authority, the unchecked autonomy of rival groups, and the inability to arbitrate quarrels through formal mechanisms—made the P.L.O. excessively vulnerable to outside manipulation and internal strife.”
In Germany in the nineteen-seventies, they go on, “the far more unified and successful left-wing terrorists tended to organize hierarchically, with professional management and clear divisions of labor. They were concentrated geographically in universities, where they could establish central leadership, trust, and camaraderie through regular, face-to-face meetings.” They seldom betrayed their comrades in arms during police interrogations. Their counterparts on the right were organized as decentralized networks, and had no such discipline. These groups were regularly infiltrated, and members, once arrested, easily gave up their comrades. Similarly, Al Qaeda was most dangerous when it was a unified hierarchy. Now that it has dissipated into a network, it has proved far less effective.
The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy. The Montgomery bus boycott required the participation of tens of thousands of people who depended on public transit to get to and from work each day. It lasted a year. In order to persuade those people to stay true to the cause, the boycott’s organizers tasked each local black church with maintaining morale, and put together a free alternative private carpool service, with forty-eight dispatchers and forty-two pickup stations. Even the White Citizens Council, King later said, conceded that the carpool system moved with “military precision.” By the time King came to Birmingham, for the climactic showdown with Police Commissioner Eugene (Bull) Connor, he had a budget of a million dollars, and a hundred full-time staff members on the ground, divided into operational units. The operation itself was divided into steadily escalating phases, mapped out in advance. Support was maintained through consecutive mass meetings rotating from church to church around the city.
Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement—are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised. Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide. 
The bible of the social-media movement is Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody.” Shirky, who teaches at New York University, sets out to demonstrate the organizing power of the Internet, and he begins with the story of Evan, who worked on Wall Street, and his friend Ivanna, after she left her smart phone, an expensive Sidekick, on the back seat of a New York City taxicab. The telephone company transferred the data on Ivanna’s lost phone to a new phone, whereupon she and Evan discovered that the Sidekick was now in the hands of a teen-ager from Queens, who was using it to take photographs of herself and her friends.
When Evan e-mailed the teen-ager, Sasha, asking for the phone back, she replied that his “white ass” didn’t deserve to have it back. Miffed, he set up a Web page with her picture and a description of what had happened. He forwarded the link to his friends, and they forwarded it to their friends. Someone found the MySpace page of Sasha’s boyfriend, and a link to it found its way onto the site. Someone found her address online and took a video of her home while driving by; Evan posted the video on the site. The story was picked up by the news filter Digg. Evan was now up to ten e-mails a minute. He created a bulletin board for his readers to share their stories, but it crashed under the weight of responses. Evan and Ivanna went to the police, but the police filed the report under “lost,” rather than “stolen,” which essentially closed the case. “By this point millions of readers were watching,” Shirky writes, “and dozens of mainstream news outlets had covered the story.” Bowing to the pressure, the N.Y.P.D. reclassified the item as “stolen.” Sasha was arrested, and Evan got his friend’s Sidekick back.
Shirky’s argument is that this is the kind of thing that could never have happened in the pre-Internet age—and he’s right. Evan could never have tracked down Sasha. The story of the Sidekick would never have been publicized. An army of people could never have been assembled to wage this fight. The police wouldn’t have bowed to the pressure of a lone person who had misplaced something as trivial as a cell phone. The story, to Shirky, illustrates “the ease and speed with which a group can be mobilized for the right kind of cause” in the Internet age. 
Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.
Shirky ends the story of the lost Sidekick by asking, portentously, “What happens next?”—no doubt imagining future waves of digital protesters. But he has already answered the question. What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución. ♦

Friday, 24 September 2010

Echoes in Blue (An exhibition of Contemporary Iranian Art)

 Echoes in Blue, an exhibition of contemporary Iranian paintings, provides a vibrant and thought-provoking view of life within the boundaries of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Curated by Iranian-born Homa Taraji, in association with Dr. Alireza Sami Azar, former director of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and a consultant to Christie’s, this show features 10 artists living and working in Iran today and is intended to introduce their work to Americans.

The show runs from October 16 through November 14, 2010 at the James Gray Gallery in Los Angeles, with an opening reception on Saturday, October 16 from 6:00 – 9:00 p.m.

Though the Iranian government requires that artists refrain from topics like religion and politics, Echoes in Blue clearly reflects the life struggles that exist in the long-lasting revolutionary state. The title is from a poem by the renowned Iranian female poet Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967), in which she reminisces about the echoes of blue in Isfahan, a world-famous Iranian city with hundreds of historic structures, built primarily in blue tiles. The poem, like the exhibition, is a reflection of Iranian culture.

“The timing is right to bring contemporary Iranian art to the attention of an international audience to demonstrate that despite the repression of women and art, Iranian artists of both genders have flourished.” said Homa Taraji.

Since 2007, the field of Iranian modern and contemporary art has grown exponentially on the international art market. Iranian artists have dominated auctions organized by leading auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams, selling at record highs. This has propelled Iranian artists to an international level and collecting their art is now a very attractive investment.

“I have been a gallery owner for 35 years. I try to promote young artists, like the Iranians I find so interesting now. I was lucky enough to sign five of them before they began getting a lot of attention in the media. There’s something exciting going on in the art world in Iran today,” says Austrian art dealer and gallery owner, Thaddaeus Ropac.

There are many other beautiful abstract and modern pieces in this exhibition, which reflect the texture of this rich culture and the existential challenges of life in Iran.

Ahmad Morshedloo captures ordinary people in what seems to be an eternal "waiting" mode; given up, indifferent and bored; filled with ennui they are just "waiting."

 Amirhossein Zanjani

 Shahriar Ahmadi

Golnaz Fathi

Hossein Khosrojerdi, who participated in the Venice Biennial in 2003, portrays characters with no identity, struggling to maintain their Persian identity in contradiction with the imposed Islamic System.

 Amirhossein Zanajni depicts the ruins of once spectacular historical buildings, symbols of Iranian heritage, which has been subject to destruction by the imposition of strict Islamic rules.

 Bita Vakili


 Mohammad Eskandari

 Ghasem Mohammadi

 Fereydoon Omidi

About Echoes in Blue

Echoes in Blue is organized and curated by Homa Taraji, co-founder and Executive Director of The American Foundation for Contemporary Iranian Art (www.afcia.org), a non-profit organization for promotion of contemporary Iranian art in the U.S.
James Gray Gallery
Bergamot Station Art Center
2525 Michigan Avenue
Building D4 in Santa Monica, CA

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Iranians Shift to Facebook for Art

By William Yong

The disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year not only sparked the worst street violence seen in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but also caused an equal explosion of passions in cyberspace where web-savvy Iranians turned the internet 'green' to match the color of the political opposition.
More than one year on, hopes of a popular movement bringing fundamental change have now dissipated, but the vitality of online activism is something that Iranian artists have now applied to their own specific needs, launching Iran's first ever contemporary art competition on the social networking website, Facebook.

"After the elections, I felt we had to spare an eye for the beauty of the world. I felt that Facebook was a space which had no borders, where all people are neighbors," says Neda Darzi, 38, who set up the 1st Annual Iranian Contemporary Art Contest group page in July.

"I wanted to see whether Facebook could be more than just a place for friends to exchange political messages and play games," says Darzi whose competition has now attracted submissions from over 350 painters, sculptors, photographers and graphic designers as well as digital, installation and video artists.

"I think the green movement is over for many users and they are now using Facebook for other reasons."

But artists who have submitted their work, as well as the thousands of Iranians who have used the 'like' button to vote in the competition have effectively broken the law. Iran's authorities, who continue to see the internet as one of the main battlefields in the ongoing "soft war" being waged against them by the West, have forced internet service providers to block Facebook and thousands of other sites which can now only be accessed using illegal anti-filtering software or banned proxy server sites.

Facebook has now joined other illicit pleasures such as bootleg DVDs and satellite TV, which are officially criminalized by the government but are increasingly a fact of life for thousands of Iranians who see access to the world media as their right.

"If using proxy software is breaking the law, what about all the other things we do," asks 25-year-old Dariush Raad, a self-described 'experimental photographer' who goes by the Facebook pseudonym, 'Boom Effect'. His album of ten photographs has attracted more than one hundred 'likes' from members of the competition group page.

"The truth is, it is not us who are doing wrong by entering this world but they who are censoring it," says Raad.

Darzi's "virtual biennale" is one way Iran's art world is recovering from a year in which politics collided with creativity resulting in numerous Iranian artists, musicians and screen stars openly supporting opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, himself an abstract painter, and many young artists to take time off from personal projects and apply their skills to his election campaign.

But following the election result and its violent aftermath, hundreds of Iranian artists withdrew from government sponsored events, culminating with the annual Fajr Arts Festival, a celebration of the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution held every February, where the absence of Iran's best artists this year was most keenly felt.

"Of all the people who are well known in the art world I didn't see a single one who took part," said Reza Hedayat, a long-established Iranian painter whose work draws on images from the folklore and symbols of his native region of Kurdistan.

"I'm not a political person, I don't understand politics. But in certain conditions, even if you don't call it boycotting, many people just don't feel good about participating in particular events."

In the period leading up to last year's presidential election, Iran's authorities temporarily removed the block on Facebook sparking an exponential growth in the number of Iranian users and a tidal wave of online political campaign activity. The reaction prompted Iran's internet minders to re-filter the site in May -- one month before polling -- creating a new and pressing demand for censorship-busting software.

"Iranians will always seek a way around the policies that they disagree with," says Sarah Harris, a PhD student in Film and Media Studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara, "the Facebook art competition is a good example of the direction that Iranian Internet culture is taking, circumventing website filters with proxies and VPNs as well as re-appropriating and re-purposing online tools for local causes."

"This leads to new, unexpected combinations of people and communities collectively producing, consuming, critiquing and advocating," Harris continued, "We shouldn't underestimate the impact of events like this."

Such communities include the vast and growing Iranian diaspora, which some counts put at more than 5 million, or around 7% of Iran's population. Three of the nine competition jurors are Iranians living permanently outside Iran and Iranian artists based in countries as far away as Italy, France, the United States and Canada have submitted their work.

"This is something that I have not seen in the United States or any other country," says the acclaimed Iranian video artist Ahmad Kiarostami and son of filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who is one of the competition jurors.
"For me, who lives outside Iran, it's been great that I can see what's happening in the art world there, who is working and in what way," says Kiarostami in a telephone interview from his home in San Francisco.

Iran's contemporary art market has seen a boom in recent years, fuelled partly by strong demand from international collectors gathering in nearby Dubai. But in Tehran, despite the increasing number of private art galleries, an overflow of young talent has meant a lack of wall space for aspiring artists.

"We have a large number of artists and not enough galleries and cultural centers to support them," says Simin Dehghani, another of the judges who will help decide on the eventual winners of the Facebook art competition, "but here we have an infinite amount of space for artists to show their work."

"I see Facebook as a means for bringing people out into the real world. I don't see it as entirely virtual," Darzi says as we watch a video of her 2004 art installation "East and West in Peace," which she held in the forecourt of the Cité Internationale des Artes in Paris. A younger Darzi dances gaily among her guests before linking their hands and walking them back to the centre in a human chain.

"It was like a live Facebook event," she says, smiling nostalgically as cooking smells rise from the kitchen of her modest apartment in West Tehran.

Darzi's 4-year-old daughter Mahgol is bouncing a ball against the floor and walls of her three-meter by three meter bedroom. It is here that the founder of the 1st Iranian Contemporary Art Contest has reviewed submissions and corresponded with judges, artists and sometimes harsh critics of her online competition on a computer which perches on the cramped surface of a chest of drawers containing her daughters' clothes.

"At the end of the night my legs are dying from standing up all day. Actually, the only time I sit down is when I am at the computer," Darzi says.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Sculptor and painter Hannibal Alkhas dies at 80

Iranian master sculptor and painter Hannibal Alkhas died on September 14 in the United States at the age of 80. He was suffering from a form of cancer.

Alkhas traveled to Iran in June to attend his 80th birthday celebration that his students had arranged for him at the Iranian Artists Forum where a series of his works also went on show.

He was planning to stay in Iran until the end of the year but was forced to return to the United States for medical treatment.

His body will be buried in the United States on Thursday, but a funeral ceremony is arranged in Tehran on Thursday at the Catholic Church located on Forsat St. and Enqelab Ave., his brother-in-law Albert Gabriel told the Persian service of MNA on Wednesday.
The son of Assyrian writer Rabi Adai Alkhas, Hannibal was born in 1930 in Kermanshah, Iran. He moved to the United States in 1951 where he attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1953 to 1959 and earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in fine art. He taught at different campuses of the Islamic Azad University in Iran.

Hannibal Alkhas was working on the completion of his Assyrian reproduction of the tragedy of Rustam and Sohrab, which was to have a happy ending.

"When I read the combat of Rustam and Sohrab in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, I wept for Sohrab (Rustam's only son) who was killed by his father. So I decided to bring the story to a different end," he had told MNA in June.

He had also explained that he changed the plot in a way that when Rustam takes the knife to stab Sohrab, he feels the great power of Sohrab and realizes that he is his son and does not kill him. Thereafter, father and son become close friends and decide to help people. The story continues on to the modern world of today where they even travel to the United States to save the American Indians.

Painter and sculptor Alkhas had also illustrated tens of book covers. His translation of Hafez's lyrics into Assyrian was also among his other credits.

Via Peyvand

Saturday, 4 September 2010

How I Lost My Leg in Tehran

by Barbara Rose, WSJ

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be cloned -- to have another you or part of you floating around somewhere in the world? Occasionally I have that strange feeling about my right leg, since I know that a flesh-colored cast of it exists, although at the moment I am not sure where. Originally, it was seen in "Passage II," a painting by Jasper Johns done in 1966.

As many writers have observed, Johns's paintings are littered with the body parts of his friends, who were convenient models. Taking the idea of asking a subject to "sit" for a painting literally, Johns sat me down on a chair and made a plaster cast of my bent leg when I was visiting in Edisto, S.C. My leg eventually appeared painted a realistic flesh color but turned upside down, pinned to the upper left of "Passage II," a painting containing objects, including neon lettering. The work was bought by the art-book publisher Harry N. Abrams and reproduced in the 1968 Abrams monograph by Max Kozloff.

In the early 1970s, the painting was sold by Mr. Johns's dealer Leo Castelli to Farah Diba, then the youthful Empress of Iran, during her art-buying spree. Before marrying the shah, she had been an art student in Paris and was an enthusiastic collector of contemporary art. After oil prices skyrocketed in the early '70s (sound familiar?), Iran was swimming in foreign money while the Western art market was suffering. Great masterpieces of modern art were cheap.

My leg was in good company: The collection the empress's agents assembled included two major Rothkos, two of de Kooning's finest paintings and other New York School masterpieces, including Pollock's "Mural on an Indian Red Ground."

Most of the collection, which had been in underground storage for almost 30 years, went on view in "Modern Art Movements," the historic exhibition held from June until October 2005 at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. My leg, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps that's because female nudity is a big problem for the Islamic fundamentalists. Renoir's voluptuous female nude is also unaccounted for, but Picasso's large "Painter and His Model" -- containing a lumpy, distorted attack on the female figure that no one from any culture could deem erotic -- was prominently displayed.

The unprecedented show was a huge success. The first gallery was filled with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. There was a Gauguin still life, a rare Léger from 1913 and Picasso's synthetic cubist masterpiece, "Fenêtre Ouverte sur la Rue de Penthièvre," as well as his late cast bronze of a baboon cradling her baby, which is also in the Picasso Museum in Paris. There were circus performers by Georges Rouault as well as a daring watercolor by the German Dadaist George Grosz. Other European and American modern masters were on view with a special section devoted to Pop artists Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine. Also in the collection are sculptures by Magritte, Henry Moore and Giacometti; paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró and Georges Braque; and three important Toulouse-Lautrecs. Their exhibition in the museum designed by Farah Diba's cousin was a surprise to all.

Ever since Ayatollah Khomeini declared Iran a theocracy in 1979, censors from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance decide what will be seen in public places. They let the Picasso through but deleted a panel from Francis Bacon's triptych "Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendant" (on loan to Tate Britain, it was reclaimed for the show) as too risqué, so the painting was deprived of its offensive central panel.

Andy Warhol's portrait of Farah Dibah languishes in a damp basement underneath one of the former royal palaces, but his pouting Mick Jagger was there for all the chador-clad women and robed mullahs to admire. Most remarkably, an entire gallery was devoted to Abstract Expressionism, the art movement that proclaimed America's cultural primacy.

The story of Farah Diba's collection is worthy of a James Bond movie. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution forced the shah and his family into exile, palaces were thrown open and there were rumors that the nation's modern art collection would be sold to Kuwait. The revolution expunged activities deemed "Western," and the modern art collection became a mythical treasure trove, hidden from view like the grave goods in a pharaoh's tomb.

One event brought the existence of the collection back into the limelight. In 1994, de Kooning's "Woman III," an abstract nude, was secretly exchanged for the "Shahnameh," a priceless illustrated manuscript based on the epic Persian poem "The King's Book of Kings." The manuscript left Persia 400 years ago to end up in the collection of Baron Edmund de Rothschild, who sold it to an American collector in 1959.

By swapping de Kooning's nude for the "Shahnameh," the Iranian fundamentalist regime rid itself of a painting it would never show and regained a national treasure. The deal alerted the world to the existence of a priceless collection of modern art, buried in the vaults of the museum in Tehran.

The news made me wonder what had become of my leg. Although the official museum checklist lists several works by Jasper Jones (sic), the one titled "Passage I" has no image and the print titled "Pinion" is illustrated on the Web site by the complex, many-layered lithograph "Decoy." The large lithograph contains a photograph of the missing painting, so disguised that it is hard to tell if it is a woman's leg or a pink blob. "Passage II," which has not been seen publicly since it was purchased, is not listed as in the collection.

It is hard to say why, after being locked up for nearly 30 years, the masterpieces of modern Western art were exhumed and put on show. The decision might well have been a symbolic farewell by the reformist President Muhammad Khatami, preceding the transfer of power to Islamic hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was elected at about the time the show opened. The exhibition closed in October.

Until recently, a Web site told the whole story of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and its collection. A few months ago, temporary exhibitions were still being announced, although now they were of strictly Iranian art. Then suddenly the Web site went dark and the only link to it said "under construction." The site is now back up, announcing a new exhibition of Iranian photography, but continuing to list the works of modern Western art, including a number of prominent Jewish artists, as part of its permanent collection, which is presumably open to the public. Equally ironic is another exhibition of paintings by the well-known Jewish painter Marc Chagall, which opened in Tehran this summer even as President Ahmadinejad was calling for the destruction of Israel.

Today, some of the most original contemporary Iranian artists, such as Shirín Neshat, whose work is now banned in Iran, are living and working in exile in the U.S. And an exhibition of contemporary Iranian photography, organized by the Tehran museum, is touring U.S. museums without the blessings of either government. In this ironic and unwitting cultural exchange, Iran owns historic U.S. paintings that American museums cannot afford and the works of gifted Iranian artists are celebrated by American museums as the cutting edge of the avant-garde. No one knows what will happen to the masterpieces of modern Western art in Tehran. They are said to be worth billions of dollars now and are too expensive to be destroyed. Will they be sold or traded?

Which brings me back to my leg. Where is it now, I wonder? Did some fanatic realize it is a woman's and throw a cloth over its offensive nudity? Is it being held for ransom to be exchanged for a valuable Persian manuscript or an important weapon? Or was it lost or stolen? Every time I look down at my right leg, I wonder where its flesh-colored plaster-cast double may be.

Dr. Rose is an art historian who lives in New York and Madrid. Her book "Monochromes: From Malevich to the Present" will be released next month by the University of California Press.

" Every time I look down at my right leg, I wonder where its flesh-colored plaster-cast double may be. "