Virtual Ether: Interview with Artist Shaghayegh Cyrous
Shaghayegh Cyrous is an Iranian American artist and curator in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work deals with cross-cultural communication and translation, addressing predicaments of estrangement and distance caused by political and cultural power dynamics. She incorporates interactive time-based strategies such as socially engaged art, participatory performances, and digital technologies such as live video chats and video installations to explore the compression of time and space resulting from digital technologies, and how digital media plays this critical role in the lives of exiles and immigrants.
She received her BA in Visual Art from Science and Culture University in Tehran and her MFA in Social Practice from California College of the Arts. She is a recipient of the Bangkit Arise international art residency and cultural exchange of Clarion Alley Mural Project and the Asian Art Museum between Indonesia and San Francisco. She has exhibited and performed at venues including Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Saba Museum, Asian Art Museum, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, British Museum, and Anchorage Museum. shcyrous.com
Janet Oh is a museum professional and musician residing in Oakland. She received a BA from Northwestern University and MA from Columbia University. Her interests reside in the performative elements of visual art practices and in socially engaged art. Currently she is at the Asian Art Museum and has held programming, curatorial, and development roles at the Art Institute of Chicago, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, New York Live Arts, Whitney Museum of American Art, and others. janet-j.com
Janet Oh: I think it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room and not ask how the pandemic has affected one’s well-being and ultimately the practices and the habits and the rituals that we form. You are an artist and a curator and have been in the Bay Area practicing at the intersection of urban installation, performance, photography, and many things. You do everything!
Shaghayegh Cyrous: Back in Iran, I was doing more painting, photography, installations, and streets performance. For the past seven years, I focused on video installation, live video chats and performances. It goes back to my refugee background and when I came here to the Bay nine years ago and when I got more interested in the magic of time and space. After moving here, things changed a bit because I was realizing and exploring the new way of communication that I had with my parents, or friends — for example the way I was collaborating with an artist friend of mine back in Iran and then now here with this distance, we had to change our way of collaboration to a new way. So we created live performances.
So the time, physical and virtual space became a question. Since 2012 I was working on all these questions in a different way and then the quarantine happened — it’s interesting because when the quarantine started, I was like, well, I was doing this for a long time now, because everyone’s started switching to Zoom and then started to report on how this new life is. And I found myself observing how other people are feeling about this type of living. It’s been nine years that I’ve been connecting to Iran like this. That was interesting.
JO: Why is it interesting?
SC: It is interesting because the first year that I came here. Skype existed back then, right? In 2011. But because of the Internet situation in Iran, it was not that common. My parents didn’t know how to use Skype, for example. And it was not in their phones or something that they can just do — there was no WhatsApp. Or it was not that common back then. I feel like it was Viber or something like that.
JO: Oh, I remember that.
SC: But it was not a video chat routine thing that you could have. So the first few years it was actually more like buying a telephone card and calling Iran, or we were sending cards and letters. And then after a while, the speed of the Internet became much better because of wireless and became cheaper, more common. I remember it was the first time that their telephone in Iran had Internet. And then there were more apps that developed during the time, video chatting. Back then that my parents had no idea about technology, they started learning it, or my friends started using it more. So I went through that process of not having access, and then how I became so excited that video chat existed.
During quarantine, I was witnessing how people are nagging about using Zoom. And I was like, you have no idea how privileged you are to be able to access it. For the first month sometimes I was posting something like, “Enjoy your privilege of accessing technology.”
Quarantine changed a lot of things for me because I was working, working, working and never had a chance to step back and go deeper into myself and my own practice. I feel like quarantine was more like a time for me to assess my life, and see what I was doing or what happened in these nine years. You know, like everything that I was going through, how I expanded my practice, what I wanted, what I really want to do. I meditated a lot. I walked a lot and looked at nature again.
JO: I know. It’s been there the whole time.
SC: Yeah! Then I made one video installation, and then I started a project, actually it’s going to be shown in Berlin in June.
JO: Can you tell me about the project a little bit? The project or both of them?
SC: The first one is called Reenacting the Future, which came out of conversations and videos that I received from my mom. Two weeks ago they didn’t have any Internet, so I had to buy a telephone card again! It’s pretty frustrating whenever this happens because it’s a moment when you realize how far you are and what if you can not connect again. The quarantine was also increasing my anxiety around that. They’re not in Tehran right now, so the Internet is going back and forth more often. So when I could finally connect, we were talking a lot about the senses, and I was kind of going back into this idea — well, I was doing all this, what that meant now that everyone has to communicate with each other with Zoom or video chats. How we are going to use our senses for communicating with each other.
When you go to the grocery store for instance, you cannot communicate like before, you know. You have to be six feet apart. That means you cannot smell that person or touch that person, or you don’t see the expression on their face.
JO: Those cues are gone.
SC: Yeah. It’s really interesting because when you and I are talking right now through Zoom, we can only see and hear each other, but we cannot feel each other well, and I don’t know the smell of the space you are in or even a coffee nearby or anything. Or, you know, we cannot touch things, like a cup on the desk for example or a chair you are sitting in. So that changes things; three of the senses are gone. During this quarantine and even in the physical space, we don’t have access to our senses as usual. I was thinking a lot about this these few months and got more curious to ask my parents about it too. Like how is their feeling of seeing me through video chat for these past nine years.
JO: That’s a long time.
SC: It’s a really long time. My mom goes around the garden where they are living in Iran. And then she says, “Do you remember the smell of this flower, remember this? So she keeps reminding me of the smell. Or what the fruits were tasting or the food she is cooking. I can see from her eyes if the video is not pixelated.
JO: Is this a garden that you’ve never seen in person?
SC: No, I saw it, but my parents never moved there when I was in Iran. When they moved into the garden they started building a place over there, a little house, and then they started expanding the garden because they’re there now. And I’ve never seen the expansion of it in this way. Today my mom actually sent me a shaghayegh flower — which means red poppy, my name. She said these just grew out of nowhere in the garden. So she keeps sending me things that are happening in the garden and what’s new that my dad is planting there. I found myself reimagining and trying hard to remember all the details and the information that I had from my childhood or back when I was in Iran to feel the garden and be there and match them with the new videos and images that I am receiving weekly from them. Like the taste of berries, sour plums, sour cherries, or the smell of certain flowers that I experienced 20 years ago.
And I try so hard because it keeps getting blurry in my mind. Twenty years is a long time. Even 12 years ago. It keeps getting blurrier, or at some point you forget some details. I started pushing myself to remind myself of that to myself. Or asking my mom to go capture certain things for me.
JO: So what does that look like when she’s capturing it? Does she describe it to you?
SC: Yeah. She goes around the garden and says, “Look at this tree, look at that.” Each time that we are doing video chats, if it’s in the morning, she goes around and walks me through everything — shows me new things and everything. It’s kind of like a metaphor for me, too — it’s like, “You will come back when the garden is so complete and perfect.”
JO: Is that what she does?
SC: Yeah. For them it’s like this. Each time they are expanding the garden, they are saying, “When you come back, this is going to be done. They keep adding things. So coronavirus got kind of weird, too, in a way. I just got a passport after all these years. That was a possibility that I might be able to go see them, so now that’s not happening. So we thought again let’s turn this sad situation to a project, we collaborate often. This time we said maybe we can reenact our future. I asked my mom, “What would you think if you saw me after all these years?” and she said she didn’t want to think because she would cry, and I was the same. So we said let’s use more of a metaphor and use the garden as a tool. We were going back and forth with the videos for weeks, and I started putting the videos together to see what that looks like. It was so emotional for me.
JO: How do you reenact something that hasn’t happened?
SC: Yeah, that’s a really good question.
JO: It’s maybe more philosophical.
SC: It is philosophical, because, you know, I feel like this was something that’s supposed to happen and it keeps postponing. So we are imagining it, but it’s not happening. You know what I mean?
JO: Well, I was actually thinking today that there’s already uncertainty in what we think is certain. And we’re all grieving and dealing with that loss because perhaps we came to terms with an assured level of uncertainty.
SC: Yeah! One other interesting thing is that Iran — I always say Iran is in the future because they’re 11.5 hours ahead. I’m always playing with this idea of, well, we are 11.5 hours in the past. They are in the future. Most of my works are kind of like, “What is the past of the future, the future of the past?” Or going around with this idea of a past future, like when the sun rises over there. Here is sunset, you know — it’s really interesting. That was one of the things that I explored and ended up becoming a video installation, Window to Tehran back in 2016–17, and I am still exploring.
JO: With the sun rising in Tehran? Was it that one?
SC: Yeah. Because of the time difference, you can almost sync the sunrise and sunset of San Francisco and Tehran. So it was a sunrise of Tehran live, and the sun was setting in San Francisco in a real window. Thanks to my friend Shabnam, who actually woke up at 5:00 a.m. to capture that and join live for the installation. Then when people were getting out of that room, it was a big window that the sun was setting at the same time. I was always interested in portals and windows because I always felt like I’m stuck here — I’m behind the screen or there are more dimensions to our life. But then I started exploring the idea of senses and made me really curious about what other people are looking at these days in the quarantine. What is the window that they’re looking at? So I started capturing and getting 30-second videos of people’s windows — the window they’re looking out the most these days and where they are.
JO: All over the world? Or where is it?
SC: Yeah, all over the world. So far I’ve got videos from Chicago, LA, London, Iran. A lot of people sent me videos, and I have it right now on my website actually. People can submit their windows. Anyone can submit.
JO: There must be a lot in common between those windows. I can imagine.
SC: At the same time, some people don’t have a window. That was kind of heartbreaking — some people were like, “Well, we are living in a basement.” Even having a window is a privilege these days for sure.
JO: Do you still capture those? Do they still submit?
SC: Yeah, I asked them to send it to me, but they’re like, “What should we send?” They send a picture of it. And I say, “Can you send a 30-second video anyway?”
JO: I remember I had a window in my room that actually faced a brick wall because the buildings were “this” far apart.
SC: When we were living in San Francisco, we had one window that was facing another building and there was no sunlight, so we were putting mirrors to reflect the sunlight inside. It was becoming so bright, and we were so proud and excited of doing it.
JO: I should have done that.
SC: So that’s one thing that I’m doing right now.
JO: I would imagine some kind of like time compression or just time distortion occurs when you’re dealing with 11.5 hours — or 12.5 hours sometimes of difference. Do you think we’re experiencing a time shift wherever we are right now? Personally, the difference between Tuesday and Saturday is almost arbitrary.
SC: It’s funny because sometimes these days are longer, sometimes it’s shorter. And I feel like it’s harder to manage for some reason. But I don’t know really. I mean I feel like it’s all about what we are doing and how we are spending our day.
JO: Have you started any new rituals or habits?
SC: I’m exercising every day from when the quarantine started. I started meditating, doing a lot of personal growth to see where I am, basically. And then I started writing Farsi. I missed writing Farsi, actually. Reading. I’m trying to push myself — I’m really exercising and meditating, no matter what every day.
JO: I understand. How has your actual studio practice changed? You were mentioning that you don’t have access to your studio. Is most of your work happening at home now? Outdoors? Or is it more internal?
SC: Well, one interesting thing is I usually research a lot in general for each project that I have. That part didn’t really change. That video installation that I created, there were so many conversations and research and then I asked my mom to send videos, I edited it at home, I wrote about it, and then researched about the senses more. Very carefully at night, I went to the studio because you can still access it, but I don’t think it’s that safe. I went there for a couple hours and made that happen, and I started recording it. It’s not perfect because I didn’t have access to everything, but I like what it came out of it. My practice is always researching, sketching, collecting things or writing about it. And then in one week, go everyday, make the installation happen.
JO: Yeah. Can you actually show me your workspace?
SC: I have to give you a tour later on. It’s in East Oakland.
JO: That’s the space that you share with multiple people?
SC: Yeah, it’s a big warehouse. There are like seven, eight artists taking spaces. I have a little space sharing with another artist and curator.
JO: Are there any artists who come to mind that you’ve recently become interested in or any ideas at your — You mentioned the windows project, but is there anything else that you’re exploring right now? Artists- or ideas-wise?
SC: Yeah, for sure. I am studying Joan Jonas again. I love her work so much. I’m actually reading a book called 50 Years of Video Art, so it’s great because I am referencing back to so many video artists.
JO: Who’s the author?
SC: Barbara London. This is the book. So it’s a really interesting book, actually. I’m searching for a lot of video artists. And going back to some of the documentaries I saw — like interviews or exploring new artists. Also exploring the video art scene in Iran, too.
JO: Do you think that a lot of this is content that wasn’t available before, or has it just been there and people have a renewed interest?
SC: Yeah. I mean, it was, but I never had time to go deep into them or go back to see now that I experienced more of an art scene. Our mind and perspectives keep changing. You know, I feel like before quarantine, we were just like, go, go, go, go, go.
JO: I was definitely like that. I don’t really miss much of that disposition.
SC: I was, too. This was really crazy. So this was a time for me to pause and go deeper into what I really wanted to read or what I really wanted to see or watch or write. I’m also exploring into hashtags like #videoinstallation on Instagram.
JO: Any interesting artists?
SC: There are a lot of different artists. I actually found a lot of interesting artists and works — like I found one really interesting Indian artist who is a video installation artist. He is amazing and I really enjoyed seeing his work. I forgot his name, but I am following him now. I found a lot of SWANA artists that are doing video or multimedia installations.
JO: Are there any common themes that are coming up?
SC: I guess one common thing, maybe. I love how they’re exploring quarantine daily life in a creative way and from different angles. They’re posting everyday practices, experimentation, new visualization, videos and performances. It’s really interesting to see what they’re doing. I think quarantine is something that will change even artists’ works globally.
JO: You mean they’re dealing with the objects and the information in front of them?
SC: Yeah, or just using very simple things and looking at them differently — like a white table with two objects that they’re playing with. But it’s so interesting to see a lot of creative videos.
JO: I think a lot of dance companies are doing that — dances in their backyards or their living rooms. They’re just playing around because they don’t have that physical proximity, and they can’t actually lift one another.
One of my questions is — the medium is the message. There’s a famous saying from a communication theorist named Marshall McLuhan, maybe in the ’70s. The digital already had the qualities that the physical doesn’t have and the immediacy. Do you think that the virtual is already changing in ways within the medium? With this virus. Or with the way people communicate now. Because it’s been there for a while now.
SC: That’s a really interesting question because my whole practice or obsession is like how people communicate with each other and what’s that golden moment that they decide to connect and how do they decide how they would communicate. Even when I came here, I started to communicate with people who spoke in different languages and I started to find a way to communicate through a Persian carpet that I was installing publicly all over the Bay Area and later beyond.
JO: And you also did a project where you invited people to speak in their native language, right?
SC: Yeah, The Language Project — or now we call it The Mother Tongue Space. I found out that in my practice, I keep trying to go around and explore how many different ways people can communicate without knowing each other. Being strangers. Like what will happen? Where does that trust come from? Because supposedly when you don’t know someone, you might not trust them — that’s another topic, I guess.
Well, like when you don’t know another person’s language, when you start talking with them with your own language. So like for example, I am speaking Farsi and and my friend’s talking Czech. If we trust each other enough, then we are good to explore that way of communication.
If countries in conflict don’t know each other’s language, then they don’t trust each other, and their communication will start getting weird. It’s very complicated and interesting, in a way. The first thing that I felt at the very beginning when quarantine happened was this is a time that everyone feels how refugees felt all this long. Even in my art practice, when I was explaining or showing certain experiences, a lot of people were not understanding at all, how important this screen is, like the way you can actually portal to another part of the world. How crazy this can be. And now AR’s that you wear and you go somewhere else and it tricks your mind and you feel you are really experiencing it.
JO: You know Mariko Mori uses that. Or Microsoft and the HoloLens. So it’s mixed reality where you’re dealing with objects that are in the room. I don’t know the term — either augmented or mixed reality. It adds another layer.
SC: So interesting! I’m imagining what would happen if I had the AR and I could go walk into the garden that we had in Iran. That would be a different experience. You can hear and kind of feel, but you still don’t have the smell, or you cannot touch things. Still it’s a virtual space, but it’s more real for some reason.
JO: Those little details are missing.
SC: Yeah. I guess it will change a lot of things, but I know that a lot of people are panicking about it. Like they’re really tired of it as well.
JO: I think the limits are that you don’t have the authenticity and that there’s this aura around the authenticity of the real thing. I started watching Westworld. Have you seen that?
SC: No. Is it good?
JO: It’s set in the Wild West, probably in the 1800s. It looks kind of like the gold rush era, but it’s actually modern day, and it’s this amusement park built for rich people. They pay to have an experience, and they can go into this world where robots look like humans. They can murder them, they can shoot them, they can have sex with them, they can form relationships. But the robots or beings are scripted, and they’re not allowed to do harm to real people. All in exchange for money. Then the show slowly gets — they start to have their own minds.
SC: So creepy and sad. It’s kind of what humans are doing to themselves, in a way. It’s interesting because when the quarantine happened, I was like, OK, the capitalist world can finally breathe for once. Because coming from the east, it’s so different. Everything is so spiritual and poetic. A lot of my friends are saying it’s not happening anymore. Like in Iran, because unfortunately they are looking into the west. I always say when you are walking in the streets of Iran, you are a poet. It’s like a land of poetry and spirituality, and they are crushing it. The poetry is in the air in a way, like the way people believe and everything. It’s not only in Iran. It’s like most of the eastern culture in different areas. And then here is like everything is materialistic, and everything is just like rush, rush, rush, but the question is for what? There is no process. There is only the end goal.
JO: The product.
SC: Yeah. What’s happening at the end. They don’t know why they’re here. So it was really interesting for me to go back, and I was like, maybe people will change because they’re now experiencing it in a way —
JO: I’m wondering how much is going to stick. But in a way, people have become less capitalistic on the whole but perhaps contributing more to the big forces through the cutting-back. Big tech is winning because we’re all still relying on it. But we’re slowing down. I hope some of it sticks, and I hope that we don’t just go back to whatever we were doing before.
SC: I know. I wish the technology would stand by nature and merge better. I’m really happy about the animals. Each time I’m getting depressed or something like that, I’m like, “Oh, my God, they’re having the best time right now.” Stay home.
JO: Doing what they want.
SC: For a while we were rescuing birds. It’s really close to us, like a couple blocks. Here it was so beautiful. When I opened our window, there were like two deer fighting with each other. Actually now they’re coming back. But for a long time, for a couple years, there were no deer around here.
JO: And they’re coming back.
Join Shaghayegh Cyrous for a Collaborative Storytelling Workshop with CODAME
Participants in this workshop will experience collective creative thinking and storytelling using their dreams, inner and five senses as a tool for collaborating and creating a short experimental video. Participants will create a one minute video based on their experience of various communication methods, using their dream (interpersonal communication), collective thinking and collaboration (Telecommunication), and advanced communication by sharing their thoughts and ideas.