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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
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