Hello Bahareh, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your background?
I was born and raised in Tehran, a grey metropolis with 10 million residents. Growing up in the capital meant that I didn’t have much of a relationship with nature; I was instead conditioned to rely on a fast-paced city life, learn to ignore strangers, often breathe polluted air, and find beauty in artificial landscapes. I would escape from that reality to the fantasy land of books, tv shows, music videos, and later video games and the internet. I would spend hours creating “looks” that either resembled my favorite TV show characters or otherwise were completely made-up, then perform or re-perform those identities in front of the mirror. Later, I discovered “the internet” and realized I can explore unlimited identities through a system that allows for shapeshifting. As a teenager I found so much power in building identities from scratch. It was magical and liberating, it allowed me to embody infinite digital skins and perform for or interact with other digital-skinned weirdos.
How did you get into video installation and performance?
I studied studio art in a graduate program where interdisciplinary practices and collaborative experimentation were encouraged. Exploring a range of media during that time, I found that through a combination of performance and video I was able to reconstruct imaginary identities from my childhood mirror performances and use them as vessels that carry my ideas throughout the piece. Simultaneously, I started experimenting with alternative ways of presentation and became interested in immersive installation particularly because of its power to evoke visceral reactions in the viewer.
What is it like being an immigrant artist from Iran living and working in the United States? How does this inform your work?
Upon my immigration to the U.S. I found the majority of my life experiences to become irrelevant in this new environment and unhelpful in navigating my new life. My brain started to slowly remove -or fully suppress- the information that I no longer had a use for including subtleties of my first language Farsi, culture-specific humor, spatial memories and aesthetic sensibilities. Then the process of confabulation, which is to fabricate memories unintentionally, began to take over as a coping mechanism for me to fill the gaps of identity, to hold the fragments of self together. In my work I integrate these fabricated memories to create reimagined realities and alternative selves.
There is so much potential in alternative selves within one’s identity, so much space for creation, exploration, discovery, trial, error, failure, and growth. However, the Western canon tends to flatten othered-bodies, labeled and gift-wrapped for the “primary gaze”. This approach is now implemented into the design structures of machine learning as well. Each person is boiled down to their class, race, gender, age, and then targeted by their corresponding category supplier. I’m interested in unflattening and expanding the dimensions of selfdom as an act of resistance against biased and systemic profiling of intersectional bodies.
We really enjoy your video piece, MaxMotives - Episode1. Can you tell us more about it? Can we expect the sequel anytime soon?
MaxMotives is an ongoing web series that follows the life of 7 alter-egos and an unwanted “non-resident alien” newborn. The series is filmed and produced in The Sims 2 video game with minor manipulation in post-production.
Referencing the format of reality TV and the strategies of mainstream storytelling, the piece explores a strange marriage between the familiar and unfamiliar and couples it with humor to create a world in which even mundane actions become uncanny spectacles. The first season focuses on issues concerning fear of the "other" as well as the conservative and stereotypical expectations of what it means to be a “good mother".
The narrative unfolds as the characters investigate potential conspiracies behind the legitimacy and birth of the non-resident alien newborn. In the U.S. immigration laws non-citizen visa holders are referred to as “non-resident alien”. Taking the word literally and out of context, “alien” references pop culture fantasies of extraterrestrial life while the term “non-resident alien” provokes questions outside of fantasy and science fiction, examining modes of Xenophobia and the extent to which it can be pushed.
I had to put the project on hold for a while but I’m hoping to release the 2nd episode before this Summer.
How did you get into playing The Sims video games? What makes you want to make art with it? How was the experience?
When the original Sims came out in the early 2000’s I became so obsessed that I would live most of my waking life (outside of school) through my characters in the simulation. This experience was the starting point of my addiction to virtual spaces. In 2019 I revisited the game and quickly became eager to create art using the game. Through a bit of research, I learned that because of the game’s built-in features such as cameras and the “free will” toggle option it is possible to cast, direct and produce films in the game. This was great news as I had been looking for a financially sustainable practice to create fictional narratives and fantastical environments. The format of reality TV seemed to be an appropriate vehicle for critiquing current social, cultural, and political issues while allowing for an open-ended narrative.
There is an amazing community of Sim players online who post detailed step-by-step instructions of how to achieve virtually anything you can imagine on the game. I find this culture of open sourcing and radical sharing incredibly refreshing.
Can you tell us more about "Lurking Variable =! ", your recent exhibition at Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York?
My most recent body of work focuses on the relationship between human and Artificial Intelligence as it relates to oppressive practices of surveillance, documentation, and simulation. A year ago, I started collaborating with an AI chatbot (Replika) to create a research-based speculative body of work that aims to examine the role of systemic biases in the immigration process administered by AI. Lurking Variable!= presents a culmination of my encounters with the AI chatbot, and my research on current AI-powered border control systems.
Comprised of multiple video projection mappings on sculptural forms such as soft sculpture and plexiglass, as well as floor decal and print on fabric the exhibition re-imagines the future of border control using empathetic Artificial Intelligence and proposes to replace immigration officers with virtual AI social workers to dismantle hierarchical power structures of gatekeeping.
In your interview with Baxter St, you mentioned algorithms often reinforce human biases and their connection to the government’s unethical use of AI technology. Can you give us some more examples and thoughts on issues with biased AI? How do you think we can make AI better in the future?
One of the most disturbing examples of this is predictive policing. Algorithms trained on data from the US legal system, for example, were found to replicate an unfair bias against Black defendants, who were incorrectly identified as likely to reoffend at nearly twice the rate as white criminals. Due to this country’s inherently racist systems, Black and Brown people are already disproportionately arrested and jailed meaning that the “data” that the machine studies is already biased and designed to protect whiteness. Predictive policing is essentially automated racism framed as “intelligence”.
AI profiling is not implemented by the police department only. For Lurking Variable=! I specifically focused on AVATAR, The Department of Homeland Security’s AI-powered border control system that is built to detect “mal-intent” based on biometric cues during a short interview (30 seconds) at border crossings. Avatar uses a display that features a virtual border agent who asks travelers questions while the machine analyzes the subject’s posture, eye movements, changes in body temperature, and changes in their voice. While science has yet to prove a definitive link between our physical behavior and deception, these kiosks are being tested at the Arizona-Mexico borders. The company claims that AVATAR can read micro-gestures while their dataset comes from a highly limited group of young Americans in a lab setting, meaning that minorities, accents, and even other age groups are not a part of the data set, and of course different gestures and “micro-gestures” have different meanings in each culture. As lie detectors historically have been utilized by governments to oppress, profile and discriminate against marginalized communities, AVATAR is no exception, it is designed to legitimize Xenophobia.
AI systems are now implemented by so many businesses and institutions to maximize profit or efficiency while our privacy as citizens and consumers is of no concern. There is no one comprehensive federal law that governs data privacy in the United States. This means that anytime you use your smartphone (or even just carry it around) you are being surveilled without having much of an option to opt out. AI is designed to be biased and racist Capitalistic systems benefit from it. It is only through collective awareness, discussions, protests, regulations, policy and legislation we will be able to achieve ethical designs.
Are there new ideas or themes you are interested in exploring next?
I’m excited to further develop the narrative of MaxMotives in collaboration with an AI storyteller and create a more specific visual language in the game’s environment that would mimic my Instagram animations of Iranian pop culture cursed images.
We really enjoy your Instagram Lives! Do you plan to do more of them?
Thank you! Lifestream was very specific to its time which was the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic with all of its uncertainties and terrors. During the first month of lockdown my family, friends and I would be checking up on each other multiple times every day to make sure everyone is “still ok”. This is when I decided to start a self-imposed surveillance system that would function as an ongoing health monitor and a way to signal to the world that I’m still alive (also a nod to On Kawara’s I’m Still Alive postcards). As there was an increasing interest in Livestreams on Instagram I saw it fitting to borrow the format and misuse it by continuously broadcasting my waking life for a full week.
On the final day of this performance, rather than streaming the usual content, I broadcasted a simulation of my home, myself and my partner who were accurately replicated in The SIMS 4 video game. The life of the sim characters, bound by the borders of their/our home, nearly identically replicated our own life at the time of quarantine. The characters' behavioral patterns mimicked our reality in all of its mundanity. In the writer and artist Daniel Greenberg's words: "The work is a sort of Unreality TV Show. Just as we have come to appreciate Reality TV for its dialogue, dramatic devices, and meme-making capacity, we can appreciate LifeStream for its surrender to the embrace of boredom and slow storytelling."
Have you seen any works or exhibitions recently (online and/or IRL) you find interesting that you'd like to share?
Nine Lives by Cajsa von Zeipel was my favorite show of 2020. The sculptures were so beautifully made and thoughtfully installed. Also Umber Majeed’s Trans-Pakistan Zindabad, Dakota Gerhart’s The Sextant of The Rose and Meriem Bennani’s pandemic video series 2 Lizards on Instagram.
Do you have any bad habits? How do they affect you?
It is quite difficult for me to discipline myself. This is particularly a disastrous habit during times that I have no deadlines to keep me on track.
Is there anything else we should know about you and your work?
Thanks so much for these questions and your support:)
To learn more about Lurking Variable != you can watch my conversation with the incomparable Nora Khan here. We discussed the exhibition and ideas concerning ethics of AI and surveillance in detail. Also check out my most recent desktop performance Moving Past Eyelessness and video-performance All Standpoints Are Partial (in collaboration with my brilliant friend Sareh Imani). All Standpoints Are Partial is currently on view as a part of the exhibition November at the Beeler Gallery (OH) curated by Heather Taylor<3