On Friday, September 23rd 2011, Wafaa Bilal’s A Call was performed in Aaran Gallery, Tehran, and live-streamed on the walls of White Box, New York. The work—which included over eighty Iranian performers, an empty swimming pool, and five cameras—was an embodied memorial to the dead, the living, and the forgotten of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Bilal, blocked from visiting Iran, developed the performance collaboratively and viewed it remotely. A Call enacted the dislocations, delays, and ruptures that war breeds. The New York-based curators of A Call, Molly Kleiman and Ava Ansari, co-directors of The Back Room, spoke with Wafaa Bilal and Aaran Gallery’s director Nazila Noebashari about the body as a trigger, the dispersion of authorship, and the transmission of a performance, pixel by pixel.
Molly Kleiman: You’ve asked to be shot, tattooed, stalked, surgically carved. You’ve made yourself subject and object of past works. In A Call, you are not the protagonist. And because of difficulties obtaining a visa, you couldn’t physically go to Aaran Gallery for the exhibition. How do you characterize this shift in authorial presence?
Wafaa Bilal: As an artist, my job is to be the initiator of a platform for engagement. I also have the responsibility to watch the platform and to maintain its direction. Once the engagement begins, I pull back from it and let the audience lead the action. The work becomes a narrative created by everybody who has participated. In the other projects you mention, the body functions as the trigger for the platform. The body’s vulnerability allows people to empathize with the work. With A Call, the body is still at the center of the platform, though it is not my body.
Molly Kleiman: How do you see this dual process of initiating and watching the platform operate in A Call?
Wafaa Bilal: The platform is the physical or virtual present. Which in the case of A Call was the gallery and the empty swimming pool in the gallery’s garden. The performance grew from but did not stay within my original instructions. I gave over the control of the project to the participants—to the people behind the camera, to the choreographer, to the director, and others. This allowed the work grow; I didn’t want to limit people’s engagement and imagination to the objective I had set up. I let the platform form itself, and people encoded the project in their own ways.
Ava Ansari: This letting go of control was a necessity. Originally we had planned for you to travel to Tehran and run the final rehearsals in collaboration with the director, choreographer, videographer, and performers. But, despite Nazila’s hard work, the visa was never approved—a rejection by way of governmental procrastination.
Nazila Noebashari: When finally we knew that Wafaa could not come to Tehran, we all decided to carry on despite that. I felt doubly responsible in delivering at least a respectable rendering of his vision. I was told later on that the performance was poetic, and visually not close to Wafaa’s usual practice. If that is so, then I believe the performance brought the Persian poetic spirit into the vision of Wafaa—a success in interactivity.
Views of A Call during the opening at Aaran Gallery, Tehran. Photographs by Sasan Abri and Aliyar Rasti.
Molly Kleiman: I’m curious about the use of the term “interactivity.” In works like Wafaa’s Shoot an Iraqi, the public is enlisted as participant. In A Call, the director, the photographers, the performers—they were given active, autonomous roles in the work’s creation; however, the audience’s role seems more distinct—they are viewers.
Wafaa Bilal: Remember, though, during the performance of A Call there was no clear line where the stage starts or ends. You can see this in the documentation of the event itself because everything blurred, with the exception of the performers making their way through the crowd—after that gap closes, literally you don’t know who is who.
Ava Ansari: Except the performers are wearing costumes, dressed in either all black or all white.
Wafaa Bilal: Yes, in retrospect, that is the only thing that I would change in my instructions.
Nazila Noebashari: The way viewers stared at the silent performers and how the performers, with their motionless gazes, forced the viewers to also stand still and quiet was really thought-provoking and extremely somber. Remembering the effects and the costs of a senseless war got through to the viewers. Many watched with tears in their eyes. The borders of the artistic work were blurred and art was physically and emotionally absorbed into life—viewers could identify with the performance and felt a part of it. Later on, a viewer told me that, for her, this was the first time that people paid tribute to the innocent lives lost to war—a simple yet extremely effective act.
Waffa Bilal: Yes, as the performers progressed through the space, you could see the blend of the public with the performers. In the photographs, you see everybody looking at everybody else—and while it is still about the past, about the war; it also became about the present moment. This immediacy—that a work is not going to be repeated, even if it is repeated it is repeated in documentation—has the power to exist in a performance alone.
Rehearsal at Aaran Gallery, Tehran, for A Call, Photograph by Sasan Abri and Aliyar Rasti.
Molly Kleiman: There is one incredible photograph (above) from the rehearsals, where you see all these different frames for viewing—the border of the window that looks out to the swimming pool; the multiple video cameras; the laptop, connecting Nazila to New York. When you look closely, Ava and Wafaa are visible in the laptop’s screen. Ava, Wafaa, what was that like for you, to see yourself projected into the space?
Wafaa Bilal: We can say we were there despite our physical absence. Marshal McLuhan predicted the global village, where technology allows the geographic distance to disappear. I felt this virtual present.
Molly Kleiman: At the same time, the inverse was true: The moment of seeing the image of yourself made it more concrete that you were not there, that you were here, in this office.
Wafaa Bilal: It’s true! It also highlighted the absence. Sometimes you can’t cross the boundaries physically but you can cross them virtually and emotionally.
Ava Ansari: I have never been more disoriented than in that moment. My body was here but I was trying to function as if I were there. And my understanding of my body and its functions was totally not working together! I was speaking in multiple voices—for Wafaa and for the artistic collaborators in Tehran, as a translator; for myself, as a curator; and as a mediator between these perspectives. When I was translating Wafaa’s comments into Farsi, I was trying to put the least amount of interpretation into the communication, to make sure to deliver as directly as possible what he is giving to me to them. So much might change with a single word. It was like using different languages in a game of telephone. I was amazed by how the performers owned the piece instead of only being a part of it. I was in tears even if I was so far away!
Virtual rehearsals: left, curators Molly Kleiman and Ava Ansari, and Wafaa Bilal in New York City; right, technical director Sohrab Kashani and Aaran Gallery director Nazila Noebashari mediate between the New York- and Tehran-based collaborators.
Nazila Noebashari: I believe we had a true case of presence in absence. All of us felt Wafaa’s humanistic approach to this work. And because Wafaa was not physically present, there was a general feeling that we should all work harder to realize his concept to the best of our ability. Not having seen our space I don’t know how he had envisioned the work. So his almost immediate acceptance of general lines of movement, which were mapped out by Hamid Pourazari and myself, gave us great confidence. We truly felt that we were all collaborating and that brought the best out in all of us. He had wonderful trust in us which was amazing as we had never even met and I believe this is why everything worked out.
Wafaa Bilal: Yes, I think that all around, there was a high level of trust and faith in others. The team in Tehran was amazing in every aspect of communication and execution.
Ava Ansari: We shouldn’t forget the context of this performance: Nazila commissioned this work as a part of a larger exhibition at Aaran Gallery, where artists from Iran and Iraq show their work in conversation. Here we see the process of developing A Call provided an opportunity for collaboration, provocation, and mutual understanding, as well.
Nazila Noebashari: Since opening the gallery I had wanted to have an exhibition to address the Iran-Iraq War. For me the fact that a prominent Iraqi artist was taking part in the three-artist show was extremely exciting, and I believe this was the first time that an attempt was made to bring artists of the two countries together. The people of the two nations were pawns in an international murderous game, and due to variety of circumstances, their voices could hardly be heard. The official account of war in Iran is sometimes surreal, and often overly dramatic. This was a chance to bring in the voices of three artists from three different age groups whose lives have been touched and changed by war. It is said that the history of world is written by the winners, but the world has changed and people are more connected than ever before. We can and should have a voice.
The performance whilst being wonderfully simple in concept, was extraordinarily effective. Looking back and watching the footage and images, it is shocking how physically the two nations resemble each other, which made me think again how utterly ridiculous it was to have fought each other.
Ava Ansari: The exhibition, though a response to the Iran-Iraq War, engaged directly with more current unrest, as well. One symbolic connection, both obvious and at the same time hidden, is the work’s title. “Neda,” which translates to English as “a call,” was the name of a young woman who was shot during the 2009 election aftermath.
Wafaa Bilal: Yes, as more and more collaborators offered input from Tehran, the piece moved from the past to the present moment. These performers who are in the pool are no longer representing the ones who passed away. They are the rising generation of Iran, and everybody is looking at everybody else, in anticipation of what is next.
Ava Ansari: And this generation is us!
Wafaa Bilal: Yes!
Left, the projection on the walls of White Box, New York, of the performance in Aaran Gallery, as captured on Ustream; right, a dress rehearsal at Aaran Gallery, Tehran.
Molly Kleiman: The day of the performance, a rainy Friday afternoon in New York City, was quite surreal. We stood in a basement gallery room of White Box, viewing the entire performance through the jittery first-person lens of one cameraman, transmitted in staccato frames via Ustream. I was hyper aware of being both witness and participant in the performance, and also painfully absent from it.
Wafaa Bilal: I saw our presence as an act of solidarity with the people who were there—we were standing looking at them, as they were looking at each other; and we were underground too! Many of us were very sad that we couldn’t be in Iran, and many of us had strong emotional connections to that region. I had a visceral, emotional response. Viewing the Ustream video, I became aware that, strangely, we are now more adapted to these pixelated images. So many of us have Skype dates with our family members overseas. Now we believe more in the pixelated cell phone pictures and Skype feeds – their graininess, their roughness revealing the transmission – than in highly polished images.
Ava Ansari: Being from Iran and seeing the piece from New York, and seeing my friends and former colleagues there at the Aaran Gallery, I experienced a horrible kind of patience. Just waiting and waiting for these pixels to come through, one by one, connecting me to life there, and the feeling of being together. We, too, as individuals, can’t flow smoothly back and forth between Iran and the US. We are all waiting pixel-by-pixel to see a transformation in our countries, in our world.
View the entire performance on Ustream here.
This conversation was edited from a series of exchanges held in person and over email.
Produced by Aaran Gallery, the performance was made in collaboration with curators of The Back Room, Ava Ansari and Molly Kleiman; curator and director of Aaran Gallery, Nazila Noebashari; performance director Hamid Pourazari; photographers Aliyar Rasti and Sasan Abri; cinematographer Amir Mousavi; technical director Sohrab Kashani; choreographer and consultant Sara Reyhani; musicians the Bamrani Group; film editor Kambiz Safari; and lighting designer Rodin Hamidi; and many other performers and contributors.
A Call has since been screened at Art Dubai, Le Palais de Tokyo, and the Tate Modern.