In the Studio with Bijan Moosavi

In the studio with Bijan Moosavi, an Iranian multi-media artist who makes films, music, performances and installations which look at the implications of the expansion of neo-liberalism in the Middle East. We met with Bijan to tell us more about growing up in Iran, what inspired them to first pursue their artistic journey and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I think in order to answer this question, first we need to see what we exactly mean by being an ‘artist’. If an artist is someone who engages with reflecting on the human condition using aesthetic means, then I can say that as long as I have been conscious of my presence in this world, I have always felt like an artist. But if by ‘artist’, we mean someone whom their relation to the society is defined by their ‘professional’ engagement within the arts, then I guess I started seeing myself as an artist when I began to approach it more as a career, dedicating more organized time to it and obviously trying to make it more viable economically. This was a gradual process which started from around 2008-9 and in Iran, when I was having my first exhibitions and performances and accelerated around 2014-15 and after I registered myself as a ‘self-employed’ artist here in the UK where I live now.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I was born in the Iranian capital of Tehran after the 1979 revolution and during the Iran-Iraq war. My parents were actively engaged with one of the socialist parties in Iran during the revolution. They migrated to Tehran from their small town in north of the country, just before the revolution took place and had me in 1983.

Life in Iran in the 80’s was quite dark, suffocating and miserable. This was both due to the war which went on for 8 years, and also the new authoritarian Islamic regime which wouldn’t hesitate to commit any atrocities to strengthen its foothold during that period. From those days I remember dark and grey colors, a constant state of public fear and distrust, and also broken things (like toys, everyday objects and public facilities).

Life in the 90’s was a bit different as the post-war period began with a move towards more liberal policies and a will to rebuild the country. This ‘liberalism’ was mainly limited to the economy and the market though, as the country was still governed strictly by Islamic law, censorship was paramount and the Iranian regime was under constant criticism by the international community for its human rights breaches. As one of the results, this period saw the advent of commercial advertising which added a bit of colour to the monotonous and grey years of the 90’s while at the same time, encouraging and spreading the superficiality of the consumerist life.

It was not all bad though. My dad is a poet and my mum (a retired nurse now) has a longstanding interest and a brilliant talent in drawing. So, art was a very present subject in our house and it was strongly encouraged and supported, despite the fact that not many opportunities were around during that time due to the political situation in Iran. But getting back to your question about the impact of this period on my work, I have to say that being brought up in such an intense political environment, my work and my approach to the arts in general has become deeply entangled with politics. I have always been interested in art which is politically aware, has liberating qualities and a desire for change, and goes beyond mere entertainment and pure aesthetics. And that is exactly the approach I have always employed (and still do) in order to make my own work.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work? 

My first interest in art was mainly toward music. When I was 7, my mum bought me a pencil case as a present which had a tiny electric piano attached to its top. I used to play simple melodies I would hear here and there on that. I guess I was very much interested in the capacities of technology for creative purposes too. I hated the nursery. I used to stay home with my grandma and record my voice on a broken cassette player that we had, telling stories and singing songs. 

When we bought our first VHS player in the mid-90’s (and after it was legalized in Iran), I used to study Michael Jackson’s dance moves frame by frame and copy them. Or I remember once we did a remake of the whole first 10 minutes of the Terminator 2 film with my brother, when we borrowed my aunt’s Video8 Handycam. Again, as teenagers we used to invent a lot of DIY games with my brother to keep ourselves entertained: from building towns using cassette cases to recording one of Tintin’s adventures in form of an audio show. 

But I guess it was after the accessibility of computers and subsequently the emergence of the internet that making ‘things’ entered a new phase for me. When we bought our first PC when I was around 16, suddenly an infinite world of possibility opened up to me. I could now generate, capture and manipulate sound and image in ways never possible before. It was mind-blowing and I was obsessed with it. The internet was also allowing us Iranians for the first time to peep through to the outside world. To see what’s happening in the world and also engage with it and talk to people.

When I finished my BA in Visual Communication at the Islamic Azad University in Tehran in 2007, Iran was experiencing the peak of a cultural (and political) uprising period. Following the 8-year presidency of a reformist president with a big majority vote, culture houses had started to appear in towns and cities, new galleries had sprung up, (Islamic) pop concerts were allowed for the first time after the revolution and Iranian cinema was having a moment of revival. Parallel to all of that, there was an underground movement taking place in semi-official spaces like artist-run project spaces, galleries, coffee shops and inside people’s houses. Artists were challenging the cultural status quo via artistic form and through music, video, performance, theatre, literature, cinema and so on. It was during and within this period that I started to make art which engaged with the society: music, performances, videos, sound works, installations and any other medium which I was finding interesting to explore.

As a result of a disputed presidential election in 2009 and after the Iranian hardliner Ahmadinejad took the office for the second term, there was a violent political backlash in Iran which ended up in blood-sheds and killings of civilians. This happened around the same time as the Arab Spring and it plunged the country into deep despair. I left Iran 2 years after that and I have never been back since then.

It took me quite some time to figure out about my new life in the UK, settle in and navigate myself as an artist in one of the most free and advanced liberal democracies in the world as well as a frontline of Western capitalism. In 2014 and as a result of being nominated for an Iranian art prize (Magic of Persia Contemporary Art Prize), I was given the opportunity to sit at an MA in Aural and Visual Cultures at the Goldsmiths’ College in London, in a non-student and non-degree capacity. This was taught by the late theorist Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Collective and it mainly revolved around a post-structuralist critique of capitalism. This course had a tremendous impact on my practice and made me focus my work mainly around neoliberalism (marketisation of all aspects of life) and the way it manifests itself within the arts.

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? 

I make multimedia work which looks at the implications of the expansion of neoliberalism in the Middle East. My work mostly takes shape in form of films, music, performances, installations and also prints. In my work I often imitate and reproduce the aesthetics of the world of corporate advertising and commerce, sci-fi movies, popular culture, the Islamic kitsch and anything in between, in order to tell dystopian tales of a fully neoliberal future in the Middle East.

From a film about a fictional start-up company with a mission to de-politicize the arts for an Islamic market (Future-Islam™: Musical Solutions, 2017), to performances by a fabricated neoliberal Islamic rock band (The Future Islam Rock Band, 2018); and from the sci-fi commercial film about a nightclub built on the site of an environmental disaster in Iran (Disco Islam, 2020), to a lecture-performance in form of a ‘business pitch’ inviting international investors in trading Middle Eastern human rights for profit (Disco Islam: How to Make a Cultural Investment in Middle East, 2019), my work demystifies the neoliberal myth that the only way towards democracy and freedom in the Middle East is through the liberation of the market.

Who & what are your greatest influences?  

I get inspiration from a very wide range of so many different artists and places (popular music, film and TV, popular culture, philosophy, etc.) that it would be really difficult to think of a few most important ones straightaway. But I guess from older generations of artists, I recently finished reading a book about Nam June Paik, and I couldn’t stop envying the state of the world in the 60’s which allowed such an uncompromising avant-garde take place which shook the foundations of what we perceive as art forever. I love the form that Hito Steyerl has invented to talk about the over-saturated post-internet world of images that we live in at the moment. I find Andy Warhol’s and Jeff Koon’s work a very good representation of the late-capitalist consumerist culture in the United States and the West (although I wished there was at least a tiny hint of a prophecy regarding where this culture could potentially take us to). I very much like also how Shirin Neshat has depicted life as an Iranian immigrant woman in the US. And among more contemporary artists, I like the explosive queer energy and wild and free madness of Jacolby Satterwhite’s videos, psychotic films of Ryan Trecartin which comments on the reality TV phenomenon (which gave Trump to the world) and video works by Will Benedict too.

There are a few artists/collectives that have had a great influence on my work in the past couple of years though. One is the New York based DIS Collective whom in their work, blur the line between advertising and contemporary art, in our neoliberal times. The other one, artists and collectives involved with the ‘Gulf Futurism’ movement (like Sophia Al-Maria and the GCC Collective) who were again looking at the expansion of petro-capitalism in the Persian Gulf region.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

Meeting and chatting with random people at random events (as you get to know more about the society outside your bubble). Browsing TikTok. Rap music-videos. Shop windows near my studio around Oxford Circus and Mayfair in London (the vitrine of late-capitalism). News. Politics. And many many more.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

I do always have the audience in mind when I’m making work since I do genuinely believe that art (or human life overall) doesn’t mean anything without the society.

On one level, I would like my art to be a mirror that reflects what it means to be a human in this historical period we’re living in (just like all art from before). I would like my works to give a true representation of life as an exiled Iranian living in 21st century London, at a time of grave socioeconomic disparities (local and global), optional human rights, the rise of nationalism and conservatism, culture wars, weakening of solidarity due to the atomization of societies, neoliberal ethics, aggressive entrepreneurship, extreme environmental damages caused by the capitalist mode of economy and so on.

On the other level, I would always aspire to make art which has a foresighted quality to it. I would like the viewers of my work to take another look at the conditions that they are used to and take for granted (as well as their privileges and desires). I want them to see art beyond its pure form and be aware of the political economy behind it, be able to imagine change and believe in the possibility of a different world.

What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice?

One of the events that had a significant impact on my understanding and approach to art was seeing the ‘Second Exhibition of the Iranian Conceptual Art’ at Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) in 2002. This was my first encounter with conceptual art (which was more or less a non-existing field in post-revolutionary Iran up to that point and it was having a moment at that time). Works by artists such as Shirin Neshat and Abbas Kiarostami were on display at this show. Artists were using various (mainly non-traditional) mediums like installation, video, sound, etc., to mainly communicate a conception or an idea. The subversive nature of the works in terms of the artistic form, and the focus on the importance of the idea (rather than pure formalism) completely blew my mind away and made me think I want to make art like that.

Another event with a major impact on my practice was (as I mentioned before) attending the MA course taught by Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun at the Goldsmiths’ College. This also set the political economy angle of contemporary art at the heart of my practice. In response to the other question regarding experimentation in my art I have to say that, yes, I do experiment in my art. I do a lot of trial and error whenever I’m making a new work, in order to find the right physical container for my ideas. Although I rarely experiment with form, just for the sake of pure experimentation.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

I guess I’m quite content and easygoing in regards to the conditions I need to make art. But at the same time, always having more time at hand to create, and also not having to worry too much about the bills, etc. will always help, especially in a highly neoliberal and unequal city like London where I live.

Tell us the inspiration behind your works?

In order to talk about the impact of neoliberalism in the Middle East, one of the visual styles that I replicate heavily in my work is the aesthetics of the world of corporate advertising and commerce. My Disco Islam 3D lenticular print is a landscape image of a fictional nightclub from the future which is situated on a deserted Salt Lake in the Middle East. This picture comes out of a film of mine called Disco Islam (2020) which is a sci-fi commercial video about a dystopian neoliberal nightclub in Iran that is built on the site of an environmental disaster and it covers up human rights issues in the region with the help of Silicon Valley technologies.

In Disco Islam 3D, I have used the lenticular technique to emphasize the illusion of freedom that the Disco Islam nightclub insists to be offering. Lenticular print is a technique that uses a thin sheet of lenticular lenses over the printed image to create a 3D impression of space and it is mainly used in the world of print advertising.

Something in the future you hope to explore?

New technologies, especially AI. 

Technology (as an extension of our bodies) has always had a great impact on human life and therefor on art too. Artificial Intelligence technology these days is able to create paintings, films, music and even write stories and poetry. I think the way in which AI is affecting the arts in our times is similar to the changes that the invention of photography camera brought about. I am very much interested in exploring this change and the role of human agency in making art using such technologies.