Video as a medium in Iran has been through many ups and downs, from being ignored and denied essential support to being affirmed through large productions and international exposure. It has been almost two decades since the first examples of video works appeared in the few galleries that accepted moving image as an art form, alongside other media already acknowledged as art.
What we call video art in Iran has deep roots in Iranian experimental cinema, such as the “Free Cinema” movement1 (جنبش سینمای آزاد ایران). That isn’t the case, however, when it comes to the first generation of visual artists who took up video as an artistic medium when the existing conditions finally allowed them access to the necessary equipment — a privilege of the elites and accessed through official channels that permitted only those in their inner circle to use filmmaking technology.
After the early impacts of the Iranian Revolution and the crackdown on political opposition by those in power, followed by the infamous eight-year Iran-Iraq War, cultural policies in the 1980s led to specific incidents such as the Cultural Revolution and heavy restrictions being placed on cinemas, theaters, cultural institutions, and universities, in particular. Video stores were also targeted, and renting and trading videotapes became illegal. These political developments severely impacted the production of art of all genres, which had to be reinvented to fit Islamic law and the values of the revolution.
The following text aims to gather together various moments after exploring new media became possible, when it was allowed visibility, as well as those moments when government policies forced it underground, where it failed to be preserved in cultural memory.
One way to accomplish this task is to search for hidden elements, evidence, and clues in various published documents, unpublished records, and oral histories. To stitch these fragments into possible micro-narratives parallel to sociopolitical events and politics of access, various interviews and inquiries were conducted. In digging deeper, one realizes that this research cannot fit into a short essay such as this; as new information emerges, it is better to propose a collective curatorial archive and a possible book-length publication on the subject. This sort of experimental media archaeology is reflected in the works of filmmakers and performance and visual artists like Ghazel, Mohammadreza Farzad, and Niyaz Saghari, who use home-video aesthetics and found footage, as well as in works by Sadegh Tirafkan, Neda Razavipour, Jinoos Taghizadeh, and Simin Keramati, whose early video works are characterized by the artists’ presence and self-referential acts.
Several factors complicate all research into video art in Iran: most of the early experiments regarding video as an artistic medium have gone unrecognized and undocumented. The published resources on the subject are severely limited. Another reason is the potential neglect of art institutions to support, archive, and promote video, sound, and performance art and the absence of these types of artworks in contemporary art collections. (Though there were artist-run collectives and personal measures to compensate for what was not accomplished by artistic centers and institutions.) Additionally, some artists created works using video technology as it became popular and widely available in the early 2000s. However, many were never genuinely happy with what they achieved and so returned to their studios and the media they were more familiar with. This led to discontinued and half-abandoned artistic experiments in the course of the formation of video art in Iran. Thus, what the following text is based upon and addresses exists as an imaginary phenomenon, often ignored and remembered only in bits and pieces by the artists themselves.
As mentioned above, while the many fundamental changes the revolution brought soon after establishing itself, including access to basic needs, electricity, education, roads, and means of communication, it became highly suppressive toward film and video media and imaging devices, disparaging them as a mark of Western culture while disapproving of their impact on the masses. Hence, an order was issued to confiscate any video-production equipment and deny public access to video cameras and videotapes. The new political establishment implemented measures to regulate what was recorded, produced, and distributed to ensure that the outcome aligned with the ideological tendencies of the ruling power. The term “Cultural Invasion” (تهاجم فرهنگی) explains the doctrine followed ever since, as it became one of the main battlegrounds for the cultural dominance of the Islamic Republic, along with the Iranian Cultural Revolution, which led to the dismissal of professors, staff, and others from the universities and the institutions’ indefinite shutdown, which lasted from 1980 to 1983.2
The children born between the late 1970s and the early 1980sn — including myself — witnessed some of the following incidents or were in close contact with those who underwent direct experiences of this kind. The cultural division produced by the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the aftermath of the Islamic takeover were visible in the routines and patterns that Iranian families practiced and readapted. For example, cassette players and radios remained in many houses, though what could legally and legitimately be possessed, played, and recorded changed radically. People kept this treasured equipment behind closed doors, recorded daily conversations, babies’ first words, voice letters (to send to their relatives abroad), news, and music over the cassettes tapes that remained from the pre-revolution days. Throughout the 1980s, people were used to routine searches for anything against the new ruling ideologies, from banned books and videotapes to alcoholic drinks and short-sleeved shirts.
Some community practices remained intact and began a new life as underground behaviors for the many Iranians who had formed a double life — watching films together transformed from a public event into an adventurous private gathering. Betamax and other home video players weren’t so widespread. Nevertheless, the owners of such devices needed to use and transport them with discretion, wrapped in mantles. However, an underground market for rental videos arose soon after the VHS ban in Iran.
The battle for film and video and who possesses the means to record, archive, and remember is reflected in the following fragments spread over our contemporary memory.
1. In the 1990s, some public figures of the Islamic regime predicted that free access to various sources of information could cause the minds of the postrevolutionary generation to become infiltrated. In an interview with the editorial team of the film periodical Farabi in 1993, Morteza Avini, a director and theorist, expressed his concern about video and computer technology. Oddly, Avini suggested that banning computers was more crucial than banning videos:
We should start from the beginning and examine the problem precisely: Who can prove that video is more harmful than computers? Nobody. The problem is that we look at the products of Western technological civilization only by the measure of perceptible morality, not by the standard of wisdom and truth. Our time is a time of imprisonment in the hands of instruments that possess a cultural identity. The products of Western civilization are all, more or less, embodied forms of Western culture, and what Marshall McLuhan says about this is quite valid. If we look at technology products wisely, we will find the computer much more dangerous than video. The computer is “sinful”: Idol of Evil. And although it is not suitable for us to prevent the entry of technological products into our country, if we were to choose between banning either the computer or video, we should definitely ban the computer.3
2. On the thirtieth anniversary of the revolution in 2009, filmmaker Pirooz Kalantari proposed and coproduced a documentary series titled Conversation with the Revolution.4 This series, along with a previous one, Image-makers of the Revolution (2009), produced by Saeed Rashtian, provided Iranian documentarians such as Robert Safarian, Mohammad Moghadam, Mohammadreza Farzad, and Susan Bayani with previously inaccessible archival material from IRIB TV1 to create films with.
3. The thirty-minute documentary Some Narratives (2009 ,چند روایت), directed by Mohammad Moghaddam, is about ordinary citizens who take their cameras out onto the streets and record the revolution taking place around them. In one part of this documentary, Amin Ghadami, the cameraman, talks about where this found footage has come from. He says that, apparently, people sent their recorded videos from the days of the revolution in response to a public call from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. This archive was then handed over to the Islamic publicity organization Hozeh Honari (حوزه هنری). Years later, Ghadami found this archive sitting in the courtyard of Hozeh Honari, and when he asked about its content, he was told that it was to be thrown away, as it only contained some trivial home videos. Ghadami took them home and, while watching them, he realized they were films from the days of the revolution.5
Pirooz Kalantari, in an interview with Reza Bahraminejad on revolution documentaries, described Moghaddam’s film as:
A genuinely new subject based on found footage that cultural officials were about to throw away. There is a moment when the film features a conservative Bazaari [بازاری /merchant] who asserts that the moment he got his hands on a camera, he knew the revolution would succeed, and so he went to a photography studio and asked them to teach him how to work with a 8 mm movie camera. Furthermore, interestingly, the shots of this man were stunning and elaborate. I think the reason for this goes back to the relation between the revolution and his viewpoints.6
Some Narratives highlights just how accessible filmmaking was to citizen filmmakers, who filmed continuously in a short period before and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution — when social freedom was supposedly practiced and made possible. Moghaddam himself once remarked that “his film was made thirty years after the revolution and shortly before the political unrest of 2009 took the country by storm.”7
4.Blames and Flame (فالگوش, 2012), a twenty-seven-minute documentary directed by Mohammadreza Farzad, conveys the following message, according to its director: “When films don’t represent and show the people, people will not wait for films but rather make their own picture.”8 The documentary deals with the subject of Iranian cinemas contending with the deliberate burning of 130 movie halls in the months prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In an interview between myself and Farzad, he confirmed that his film, completed in 2009, was banned from broadcasting in Iran and that is why it was not released until 2012.
5.In conversations with media studies scholar Blake Atwood, the artist and filmmaker Maani Petgar likened video to a “miracle” (معجزه), not just because of its technological affordance — like rewinding and rewatching — but also because of the role it played in a country that seemed increasingly isolated from the world: “At the time, I often thought about how terrible it would have been if videocassettes hadn’t existed. We would have been completely cut off from world cinema. Opening a video store was a chance to be part of the video and the cultural and technological world it promised.”9
6.Niyaz Saghari, filmmaker and visual artist, in her film VHS Diaries (خاطرات وی اِچ اِس, 2020) sheds light on the secret lives of young cinephiles in the 1980s while investigating stories of underground videocassette dealers known as filmis (فیلمی). In a short text for the 2021 RAI Film Festival in the UK, the work is described as follows:
VHS Diaries is constructed as a collage of excerpts from films in Saghari’s personal collection of VHS tapes from the period, home-video footage, archival images, and footage shot more recently of the interviewees. … Interviewees explain that films were imported by pilots and then copied, meaning most tapes were poor quality, with graininess and sections of glitching.10
In May 1993, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Larijani announced that the ministry intended to lift the ban on video technology. Although politicians had previously positioned video as part of the “assault on culture” (تهاجم فرهنگی), Larijani argued that ‘we must know the qualities of mass communication to combat the assault on culture.’ Significantly, he also moved beyond the Islamic Republic’s anxiety about a cultural onslaught from the United States and Europe and advocated for video, believing it would allow Iran to share its culture globally and facilitate education and research within the country. The decision to legalise video technology prompted controversy, especially within the country’s periodicals, and one editorialist even called the video a “little devil” that people welcome into their homes.11
Pirooz Kalantari has emphasized that the policy changes concerning how Iranian national television produced documentaries represented a critical turning point in the 1990s: “One can see a huge bump in the quantity of produced films, often made without an audience or a market. The documentary series Children of the Land of Iran was an exception. It was supposed to be a 52-part series of documentaries produced by Mohammad Reza Sarhangi about children and rural life in Iran. Morteza Poursamadi recorded these episodes in a 16 mm film.”12 For example, the educator, writer, and filmmaker Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri points out:
Fifty-two episodes of Children of the Land of Iran (کودکان سرزمین ایران, 1990) series were outsourced to directors outside the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) system. Children of the Land of Iran series was a fifty-two-part documentary series produced by Mohammad Reza Sarhangi, about children and rural life in Iran. Filmed by Morteza Poursamadi in 16 mm film, these films recreated the idea of an Iranian identity outside of religious strictures as the country was moving toward reconstruction. Sarhangi was a semi-independent producer who acquired funding from state television’s channel 2, but invited renowned filmmakers from outside the television system to each make a film on this theme. Managing the production of this documentary series was hard work. Sarhangi had to meet both the demands of the IRIB directors and the needs of the filmmakers. The commission was never fully finished, but about forty-two episodes were made, and some of them also broadcast on IRIB 2.13
This initiative broke the monopoly of IRIB’s managers and directors, who had until then asserted total control over all stages of TV production. The impact of these policy changes became even more visible in the late 1990s, when political, social, and economic reforms in Iran, following straight on the heels of an eight-year war, facilitated the import of moving-image technologies.
Mohammad Khatami’s presidency and Iran’s turn toward embracing a more international dialogue should have had, at least on the surface, a significant parallel impact on the strength and re-emergence of “civil society,” including a less restrained press and more open cultural climate. The younger generation used this (temporary) social freedom to explore and experiment, using their newly found film tools to express themselves. A more contemporary approach to art films and documentaries emerged, while educational facilities and independent workshops bypassed the structures of traditional academic institutions. Art managed to become a new way of identifying, appropriating, cohabiting, and conversing for the middle class, filling public space, and writing life onto videotape.
Long before it entered the realm of visual art as an artistic medium, digital technology had influenced the film industry. It increased the possibilities for making independent movies, documentaries, and art films. This new digital culture had a significant impact on what would come next. It freed makers from a decade of control, and the urge to establish a civil society also demand that storytellers and narrators show the coming changes to the rest of the world. When the so-called political and economic reforms blossomed in the spring of 1997, so did hopes of a better future — and it was all recorded on tape. However, things were growing dark and bitter in the background: as the prosecution and elimination of intellectuals entered a new phase, few artists chose to go against the stream.
Atwood points out the importance of access to digital technology in shaping the genre he calls “the Second of Khordad” (ژانر دوم خرداد). He writes:
Films from this period speak to the technological innovations — including the rapid expansion of digital video technology — that were changing the standards of filmmaking and spectatorship in Iran. The proliferation of digital video technology not only democratised filmmaking by providing affordable access to cameras and editing software, thereby allowing individuals to sidestep the government’s role as the subsidiser of expensive 35 mm film equipment, it also encouraged a system of production, distribution, and aesthetics that operated outside the bounds of state control.14
The behavior of the cultural benefactors of the state in the reform era was somewhat passive-aggressive. On the one hand, they seemed open-minded and all inclusive. For example, they sought to involve more senior artists from the pre-revolution era. However, on the other hand, they used their financial support to control and manipulate the artistic community. In an interview I conducted with media artist and critic Barbad Golshiri, he remarked on “how the cultural policies changed in the last months of Mohammad Khatami’s second administration,” continuing: “They changed from large-scale multimedia exhibitions to more permissible topics and themes. The executives soon realized that ‘conceptual art’ was far more dangerous than, for example, non-political ‘abstract art.’ So they started to drive the art exhibitions toward what they called ‘spiritual arts’ (هنر معنوی).”15 At Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the Spiritual View (نگاه معنوی) exhibition featured various disciplines, from miniature paintings and calligraphy to video art.16 It was one of the early shows curated by a group of artists instead of museum staff: Gholamhossein Nami, Aydin Aghdashloo, and Habibollah Sadeghi.
In politically restricted countries like Iran, digital technology has helped to develop and transform the nature of filmmaking, helping filmmakers and artists bypass governmental and financial controls.17
As video cameras became more accessible to filmmakers, some started using them to break the boundaries of traditional filmmaking, as in the documentary Shahrak-e Fatemiyyeh, by director Rakhshān Banietemad, which later became To Whom Do You Show These Films? (این فیلمها رو به کی نشون میدین؟, 1994).18 To Whom Do You Show These Films is described by Sadegh-Vaziri as
An interactional film that features Banietemad, wandering through a poor neighborhood and talking to the residents about their living conditions. It was a significant film about the dislocation of poor householders in a section of Tehran. A version of the film was made for internal use of the Tehran Municipality, to expose the dire conditions of some residents and helped city leaders enact policies to help poverty stricken neighborhoods. Banietemad then returned to observe the conditions after the changes were made, and the film challenges the benefits of the improvements.19
In making this documentary, Banietemad uses a video camera in addition to a film camera. While watching the documentary, we see the director and the crew walking in the neighborhood to “take two or three more film roles” and inform the authorities about the scale of the crisis.
In ABC Africa (آ.ب.ث آفریقا, 2001), Abbas Kiarostami and his colleague Seifollah Samadian used two handheld digital video cameras to make a film about the millions of Ugandan children orphaned by AIDS, after being approached by the United Nations’s International Fund for Agricultural Development. In his review of the documentary, Peter Bradshaw, film critic for the Guardian newspaper, writes:
In the process, Kiarostami abandoned not only 35 mm — taking with him just hand-held digital video cameras — but also most of his recognizable ways of working. Almost nothing in this movie announces Kiarostami as its author, apart from the unmistakable appearance in a shot of the director himself, wearing his ever-present sunglasses.
Instead, much of this could be the work of any filmmaker who has used the new generation of DV cameras and experienced the dizzying possibilities of auto-focus, auto-light exposure, and internal Steadicam.20
One of the noteworthy impacts of digital technologies on Iranian cinema was the challenges it triggered for the censorship agencies. As the film critic Houshang Golmakani has asserted, “Iranian cinema is a heavily regulated industry where censorship occurs at every stage of the filmmaking process: scriptwriting, shooting, postproduction, and distribution.”21 However, the streamlining of the filmmaking process enabled by digital technologies thwarts this level of control.
Filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf, in her address at the 2000 Cannes Festival in France, also pointed to this aspect of digital technology. Titled “The Digital Revolution and the Future Cinema,” her talk describes how digital technology allows filmmakers to directly “screen” their films on the Internet, thus evading the government’s control over distribution. Digital filmmaking made the making of low-budget productions and indie films possible, compared to analog cinema techniques, which required permission and government support for equipment. It also created shortcuts around ever-changing state policies, traditional cultural concerns, and bureaucratic obstacles.22
By contrast, video art in Iran has dwelled in the somewhat safer territory of the visual arts, which the authorities have taken less seriously than film, theater, and music, and therefore monitored less closely. The medium emerged in the art scene more or less around the same time as digital technologies started being used for experimental cinema and documentaries. However, video art was far less popular in the art community than other, more traditional forms of moving image, such as film and documentary. One reason for this might have been the more conventional approach of gallerists as well as the more complex technical requirements to present such artworks. The earliest appearances of video art occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Artists such as Ghazel and Golriz Kolahi recall not getting permission from the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance for their performances, Happenings, and video installations. Without official authorization, exhibitions and events could usually run for only one day or run the risk of being shut down by the authorities.
Artists like Sadegh Tirafkan, Ghazel, Golriz Kolahi, Simin Keramati, Barbad Golshiri, Rozita Sharafjahan, and Fereydoon Omidi showed their video works and video installations using regular TVs and rarely used video projectors. Later on, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) acquired projectors for their mega-exhibitions, such as the First Conceptual Art Exhibition in 2001 and Persian Garden in 2004. The museum would, in some cases, lend its projectors to other galleries, thus allowing artists the luxury of a large-scale projection. However, this only happened under certain, rather complex conditions, which included a deposit to guarantee the equipment’s safe return and a considerable amount of paperwork.
The inherent qualities of digital cameras and the immediacy of their built-in screens allowed artists to cast a new inward gaze upon their lives and surroundings. In their article on digital cinema, Adam Ganz and Lina Khatib contend:
In digital film the immediacy of the image becomes the aesthetic. And that has led to a transformation of the nature of cinema. … These effects have proportionately been felt more in countries without an established film industry or where that industry was subject to strong central control. The technology is not only transforming the film industry, it is allowing film industries to exist where there were none previously.”23
Alireza Razazifar, a film researcher and filmmaker, has written extensively on the trade of digital goods in Iran, addressing some of the pioneers behind importing digital devices. Here Razazifar quotes Fereydoon Soori, a merchant and one such pioneer:
In fact, two different groups of users have been buying and renting digital devices since 2002 when digital cameras and digital editing became popular. The first group consists of professional people who wish to take advantage of cheap digital devices to make professional films; the second group comprises amateurs who wish to buy an opportunity to make a film or run a small filmmaking business for documentaries or weddings etc. The latter, who are new customers of this market, have played a significant role in the survival and development of this business. They do not have great expectations of digital devices, unlike professionals. Therefore, the increase in digital editing computer board purchasing in 1998, followed by the DSR-PD150 in 2002 and the HDV cameras in 2005, could be related to this group of amateur customers.24
In an interview with me in 2021, Pouria Jahanshad, a researcher in critical urban studies and contemporary art, confirmed that recording devices in the late 1980s and early 1990s were generally more accessible to the public than editing and postproduction equipment, which is a common situation in developing countries, including Iran. The demand for digital cameras was more substantial than the side market for editing equipment, which remained a rare commodity, mainly used by film production companies and a few independent studios that catered to artists and hobbyist filmmakers.
Furthermore, as Atwood notes:
Advertisements for video equipment and services provide valuable information about both the growing popularity of video and the kinds of hopes and ambitions that the technology represented for Iranian society at this time. Between Khatami’s first month in office and the middle of his second presidential term, the number of advertisements for video-related products more than tripled in the monthly publication Film and totalled more than a quarter of all advertisements in the other periodicals. These advertisements marketed video equipment, such as cameras, tapes, and editing software, as well as services, such as rental clubs, videography and editing, and filmmaking organisations that used video equipment. In these advertisements the video offered a world of possibilities, from the chance to record “the beautiful world … exactly as it is” and to “create and preserve happy memories” to twenty-four-seven access and immediate playback options. As one advertisement boldly declared in a two-page spread, “Bring the cinema home!” Video technology meant that filmmaking belonged to everyone and that the consumption of moving images was no longer confined to public spaces.25
The state policy following the revolution, which supported only purely ideological revolutionary art, transformed, in the late 1980s, to accept more moderate representations, including calligraphy, craft, and Persian miniature and coffeehouse paintings. This slow turn can be seen in the milestone exhibition, Kunst und Kunsthandwerk in der Islamischen Republik Iran (هنر و صنایع دستی در جمهوری اسلامی ایران) / Arts and Crafts in the Islamic Republic of Iran, held in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1991. It was a month-long festival of Iranian culture sponsored by Thyssen Handelsunion AG and conceived by the mayor of Düsseldorf and the art deputy of the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Though both parties stated they were hopeful that the festival would initiate dialogue despite conflicts and difficulties, this joint effort had clear financial benefits, which no doubt were the main driving force behind it. A general change of view on the arts was taking place inside Iran, and the new establishment was transitioning from seeing arts and crafts as an ideological threat to a great opportunity and a useful tool on the international stage.
As art historian Talinn Grigor explains:
The alarming population growth after the Iran–Iraq war combined with [President Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani’s efforts to restore normality to everyday life resulted in the state establishing other cultural centres, modelled after Saadabad and Niavaran. The Bahman Cultural Centre ((فرهنگسرای بهمن), BCC, 1991), the House of Artists (خانه هنرمندان ایران, 1998) and the Saba Cultural and Artistic Centre (موسسه فرهنگی هنری صبا, 2001), under the auspices of the Iran Academy of Arts (فرهنگستان هنر ایران, 1998), can be considered different manifestations of the changing relationship between the state and official art from the Rafsanjani to the Khatami administrations.26
This relationship soon darkened in the second half of the 2000s, following a change in government and the rolling back of the cultural policies of the so-called reform era. The artist Shirin Sabahi, in her installation Untitled (District Sixteen) from 2010, looks at three different life stages of the infamous BCC site in Tehran: as an animal slaughterhouse, as the Bahman Cultural Center, and finally an abandoned area with an unknown future.
In the early 2000s, the Iranian Artists Forum was one of the few places hosting contemporary art installations, performances, and video programs in the format of festivals and projects.27 Under the management of Behrouz Gharibpour and Azita Sharafjahan, artists could exhibit video and performance works there when limited venues were open to such mediums. The exhibition For Bam took place in 2004 in two industrial warehouses at the Art Garden (باغ هنر), next to the Iranian Artists Forum. The show featured a six-channel installation by conceptual artist Barbad Golshiri, described in a Bidoun review this way:
Barbad Golshiri, working in collaboration with Ali Shirkhodaie and Yalda Mo’ayeri, covered the bare concrete walls with disturbing large-scale slide and video projections. Their work, titled ‘The Incredulity of Saint Barbad’ [2004, شکاکیت باربد قدیس] alternated footage of Bam residents digging through the rubble with an artful shot of a blinking eye clogged with mascara, and a still of Caravaggio’s ‘The incredulity of Saint Thomas.’28
For Bam also included installations by, among others, Amir Mobed, Atila Pesyani [with Baazi Theater Company], Shahab Fotouhi and Jinoos Taghizadeh, as well as Bita Fayyazi in collaboration with Maryam Amini, Nargess Hashemi, Alireza Ma’soumi, Ramin Haerizadeh, and Rokni Haerizadeh.
TMoCA was not active in promoting the arts in the years following the Iran-Iraq War, post-1988. During the fifteen years after the revolution TMoCA had roughly fifteen directors. The museum’s orientation shifted from displaying works of modern art to ideological art in the service of political propaganda. Museum directors were appointed by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance during this period, most of them having no education or artistic background. According to Alisa Eiman, “the museum, in effect, served as a gallery space, exhibiting works that paid homage to the revolution, revolutionary posters and images of Iranian martyrs from the Iran–Iraq war, as well as exhibitions of revolutionary works by Mexican and Palestinian artists.”29 This contributed to highlighting the role of private galleries in the late 1990s.
Other than that, according to Talinn Gregor, “the reforms at the Visual Arts Oﬃce [a department of the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance] encouraged many well-to-do individuals to open showrooms. Frequently, these were extensions or conversions of private residences into galleries,” in which “the architectural basis of Iranian avant-garde art [becomes] obvious, and thus its limitations and possibilities. … Private galleries have often mediated relations between the state and the art community, between the artist’s home-studio and the public domain.”30
Artists and members of culturally involved families were among the first to open art galleries in Tehran, continuing a tradition going back decades in the rather elitist art scene of the city. (However, in other Iranian cities, the visual arts mostly remained under the control of officials and state-run organizations for years to come.)
Barg Gallery of Tehran is the exception that proves the rule. It was run by Tehran Municipality’s Beautification Organization (سازمان زیباسازی شهرداری تهران), which played an important role in presenting some nonconventional art exhibitions. My first encounter with an exhibition featuring video as a medium happened when Golriz Kolahi showed an installation at this gallery in 2001, for where she used a projection to map her video onto a circle of salt. The installation was exhibited without permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and was shut down a few days after the opening. Artists Afshan Ketabchi, Simin Keramati, and Pouya Arianpour have also shown their projects at Barg Gallery, as well as painters like Nasrollah Moslemian and Afshin Pirhashemi. Later, the BCC, the Iranian Artists Forum, and TMoCA all hosted exhibitions featuring videos. Azad Art Gallery, an independent gallery in Tehran founded by artist Rozita Sharafjahan, has also exhibited video art, performance, and installation art since its establishment in the late 1990s.
Grigor describes the role of TMoCA for the establishment of new media art and new approaches in this way:
In 2001, TMoCA hosted the first major exhibition of conceptual art in Iran. The First Conceptual Art Exhibition formalised the debut of new media in Iran with a specific budget allotted to installation, video, photography, and performance art. The museum’s director, Alireza Sami Azar, believed that the tendency for mixed media to be issue-based lent itself to advancing “socio-political messages,” which were not easily put forward by modern painting. “Art was never a political tool,” but now it had gained a “critical element,” according to Sami Azar. There was a hope that this new media turn would enable a shift in the function of art in society.31
Beyond institutions, in the 2000s, collaborations between artists and collectives, like Parking Gallery Projects and Parking Video Library — both of which I founded, in 1998 and 2003, respectively — paved the way for the Limited Access Festival, which I started in 2007. Dedicated to moving image, animation, and documentary, alongside sound and performance nights, the festival soon became a hub for video art from Iran. The festival has been on the move since, visiting cities like Cairo, London, Rotterdam, and Breda, and the Iranian cities of Isfahan, Shiraz, and Mashhad.
Independently curated exhibitions also started to emerge, such as Deep Depression (2004), Transition (2005), and Group Video Installation (2005) at Azad Gallery. They appeared around the same time that the reformist government, in its last two years, allowed TMoCA’s activities to extend beyond national borders, for example TMoCA’s Beams of Blue (2004), curated by Hamid Severi, the former head of research at the museum, were shown in Rome and New Delhi.
While cinema has a long history in Iran, video art is a relatively young medium in the Iranian art scene; its history goes back only as far as the mid-1990s. This last decade has seen an increase in the medium’s popularity among younger artists, many of whom started their artistic careers primarily through video. Galleries, exhibitions, and events focused on photography and video are continually growing, and different universities with photography courses have numerous students each year, many of whom are women.32
Art historian Julia Allerstorfer describes her reasons for choosing to write about photography and video in Iranian art as follows:
These media are widespread, popular among a younger generation of Iranian artists, and frequently intertwined with various topics concerning self-expression, identity, and gender. The abundance of creative work with these media may be explainable due to their international popularity, as they are rather easy, affordable, and available and can be distributed quite rapidly.33
Nonlinear editing technology, enabled by the advent of digital filming, dramatically changed access to the video-making process. Kiumars Pourahmad and Rakhshan Banietemad were among the first filmmakers in Iran to edit their TV series, such as Clue (سرنخ, 1997), directed by Pourahmad, and feature films, like The May Lady (بانوی اردیبهشت, 1998), directed by Banietemad, at the Resaneh Pouya Institute. Their efforts were followed by Ebrahim Hatamikia. Farhad Touhidi — the celebrated screenwriter, member of House of Cinema’s34 (خانه سینما) board of directors, and one of the film institute’s founders — recalls the shift to digital as both time efficient and economical, because it put all the required materials at the fingertips of the filmmaker and editor.35
Farid Jafari Samarghandi, artist and video maker, started editing films parallel to his art practice in a small office using ethnomusicology documentaries. His debut video, a forty-plus-minute piece titled 1,2,3,4 for Love, was later shown at Azad Art Gallery in 2001.
Although many middle-class Iranians had access to video cameras in the 1990s, when they became a common household commodity, computers were not around or not powerful enough to edit home videos. Artists and filmmakers had to go to specialist editing studios to capture and convert their films into something playable. Later, better TV sets enhanced the connection to video cameras and game consoles, and some artists began experimenting with combinations of these devices.
Anahita Hekmat, in a conversation we had in 2022, described her first encounter with a camera in her parents’ home in Iran. However, it wasn’t until she started studying in Strasbourg, France, around 2004 that she got access to editing facilities to make her first videos. She began working with a camera again, but showing the resulting works in Iran happened much later.
Another widespread phenomenon among artists in Iran in the 1990s was borrowing each other’s equipment to make videos, which was also very common back in the 1970s among the circles of the Free Cinema movement. But when it came to editing the material, artists new to the medium turned to small film studios, graphic design ateliers, and sometimes advertising agencies. Some young filmmakers and cinema students helped older artists execute their first video works, often in cultural centers, sometimes at galleries, and now and then as part of TMoCA’s New Art exhibitions.
At the same time, filmmakers used video and the corresponding equipment in making art films. Mohammad Shirvani’s 2003 digital feature film Navel (ناف) was one of the first films made with a handheld video camera in a carefree manner. As the camera starts to follow the five protagonists and is tossed from one hand to another, it gradually becomes one of the gang, befriending the characters by creating and witnessing intimate moments never before seen on film. In a memoir published in the Cinema and Literature (سینما و ادبیات) periodical, Shirvani writes:
We couldn’t get the licence to make the movie Navel from the pre-production phase. But we did not want state help, and we were the investors of our film, so we knew it was our birth right to make, and we did it. And we knew we could not show it in the cinemas under their control, and we didn’t.36
Soon after the explosion of the blogosphere and the introduction of ADSL broadband to Iranian households, dial-up internet gave way to infinite pathways toward a new world. Visual resources previously inaccessible to many started to grow via file sharing and early streaming websites. It was a while before the authorities stepped in, using keyword filtering to block access to certain websites, among other things. Users learned how to evade these censorship tactics by using VPNs and proxies. The never-ending battle to control what the public sees and has access to started long before on other fronts, such as video and satellite, but now reaching for the ever growing information galaxy.
Video-sharing websites later became important platforms for showing and exchanging moving images, and, of course, many of these were destined to be banned following the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests. Iranian start-ups and platforms to provide such (monitored) services did not emerge until many years later. While this void has adversely affected knowledge and proficiency around video technology and other means of moving-image distribution, file-transfer platforms and cloud services have aided the movement of video files, making long-distance collaborations like file-based film screenings easier and more frequent. Events such as the Limited Access Festival, which relied on travel and postal services in the early years, became more dependent on the internet as a stage to both publicize and organize their endeavors beyond Iran’s borders.
As cultural scholar Hamid Naficy notes:
Finally, due to the digital media revolution and the rise of the Internet as a primary venue for organising social protests and for documenting, producing, disseminating, and exhibiting both professional and amateur media, a new form of “people’s media work” emerged, what I am calling the “Internet cinema,” which gave global voice and vision as well as empowerment to Iranian dissidents both at home and abroad.37
The multiplicity that faster internet brought between 2005 and 2009 helped create a sense of togetherness and belonging for many Iranians who had become isolated in the 1980s and had witnessed the promises of the late 1990s dissolve into thin air under the hardliners who took back power in 2005. This was a rather special time, when less advanced algorithms would handpick search results for users, making a more organic reach possible through early social media platforms. Against all odds, many artists launched websites to promote their works and to be more accessible to the outside world. The internet also helped many international researchers discover Iran, almost like a hidden treasure, and new issues such as matters of representation, ethnic marketing, and Orientalism began to influence younger artists.
Technology not only made the recording of unrehearsed and on-the-run footage easier and more intimate [it] also made the relationship of the subject and the camera more personal. High-quality digital video camcorders and computer editing software, both available at consumer prices, raised the technical quality of the documentaries, including special effects and titling, and made them available to a larger number of professional and amateur filmmakers. Thus technology democratised the documentary field.38
It is difficult to ascertain whether the same democratization also happened to video art in Iran, as the uncertainty surrounding its fate remained. Only a few artists managed to have their works internationally shown, and independent efforts remained unsupported for years. The absence of much-needed infrastructure and the inability of the few art collectives, archives, and project spaces in Iran to work together with the visual art scene prevented the anticipated growth of video art. However, this slow expansion had its upside, since experimentation wasn’t discovered too soon and immediately exploited. The video works created in the early 2000s were less attractive to the art market and thus helped the medium to remain open and accessible despite its limited audience. During this time, Iranian video artists also began to discover each other’s practices online as well as through an increasing number of curated programs.
For her early interventions, the artist Ghazel created site-specific spaces using videos in a small garden house located in the suburbs of Karaj. She also created ephemeral Happenings and one-day events with Roxana Shapour at the famous 13 Vanak Gallery in Tehran, founded by artist and collector Fereydoun Ave, and with Kaveh Golestan at Golestan Gallery in Tehran in 1999. These Happenings were recorded with video cameras and are an early example of performances documented on tape. Ghazel later presented the edited footage of these events for various occasions and exhibitions.
Kourosh Adim, a well-known Iranian photographer and lecturer, and artist Sadegh Tirafkan both experimented with video while focusing on photography. Adim’s Love Looks Back upon Us (1994) has never been publicly shown, and Tirafkan’s Persepolis (1997) was part of a show of photographs at Seyhoun Art Gallery in Tehran in 1998. In an interview in 2010 for Iran and Co. Archive, Adim recalled that “we didn’t have ‘art photography’ after the revolution and during the war. It was all focused on documentary and social photography.” He also described “the problems of access to films and books as an undeniable obstacle in the emergence of what we call fine art photography, which was overshadowed by documentary photography of the revolution and Iran-Iraq war.”39 Tirafkan likewise recalls the limited access to books and magazines, which were confiscated in the post or censored with black marker, causing a sort of blockage in the visual imagination of the culture, which remained accessible only to those privileged enough to be able to travel outside Iran. Compared to this dearth of imagery, Tirafkan describes the ease of being able to browse millions of images online with just a few clicks today.40
Rapid political and economic changes in the years leading up to 2009, precipitating a sudden boom in contemporary Iranian art in 2006 and followed by a high number of exhibitions abroad, helped video art to flourish in Iran and to expand its domain, as more artists began using the medium and the audiences grew. Despite a void in academia and no institutional support, public acceptance of the medium increased, festivals and archives were established, and, with the help of high-speed internet, video art by Iranian artists began to be seen worldwide.
The technological advances described in this text were tremendously life changing and transformed video from a peripheral medium in contemporary Iranian art to an established practice that connected artists living in Iran and those of its diaspora using this highly mobile phenomenon. New waves of digital works continue to roll in. At the same time, there always looms the threat of state-sanctioned restrictions of the platforms hosting these works, such as cloud and streaming services, social media, and the internet itself.
Though this text focused on the evolution of video as new media until the mid-2000s (needless to say that capturing its most recent history and further developments is not studied here), in the context of the current moment, it’s worth noting that what used to be generally called “new media art” in Iran is no longer an emerging medium. It is now an accepted approach for artistic expression and articulation of urgent concerns.
A video program curated parallel to this text brings together different video pieces, art projects, documentaries, and films in order to shed light on the vast area at stake and the diverse practices affected by access to moving-image technology and by various sociopolitical events. Revisit – Early Encounters. Iranian Video Art from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, hosted on the mohit.art platform, covers fifteen years of video art from Iran and features works by Maani Petgar, Sadegh Tirafkan, Kourosh Adim, Amirali Ghasemi, Ghazel with Kaveh Golestan, Neda Razavipour, Golriz Kolahi, Farid Jafari Samarghandi, Simin Keramati, Raha Faridi, Anahita Hekmat, Mohammad Shirvani, Mohammad Moghaddam, Niyaz Saghari, and Minoo Iranpour.
1 “Free Cinema Movement was established in 1969 by experimental filmmakers like Basir Nasibi, Shahriar Parsipur, Abrahim Foroozesh, Behnam Jafari, Ferydoon Shybani and Abrahim Vahid-zadeh. The movement was followed by many young filmmakers who created artistic, low budget films on 8 mm stock. Many filmmakers of the new wave began their careers as participants in this movement, joining the new wave after early success with 8 mm films.” Shahla Mirbakhtyar, Iranian Cinema and the Islamic Revolution (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, , 2006), 45. For more information, see Bassir Nassibi, Dah Sal Sinema-ye Azad-e Iran (1969–1979) (Saarbrücken: n.p. 1994).
2 Nikki R. Keddie and Yann Richard, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 250.
3 Morteza Avini, interview by Farabi Editorial Team, “Video vs. Man’s Historical Resurgence” (ویدئو در برابر رستاخیز تاریخی انسان), Farabi, vol. 5, no. 1 (Winter 1993): 117.
5 My translation from Persian into English.
6 Reza Bahraminejad and Pirooz Kalantari, interview, “About Revolution Documentaries,” February 2009, Va-mostanad, republished by Shafaf.ir, http://www.shafaf.ir, My translation from Persian into English.
7 Mohammad Moghaddam, in conversation with the author, January 2022.
8 Mohammadreza Farzad, “When Films Don’t Represent and Show the People, People Will Not Wait for Films but Rather Make Their Own Picture,” interview by Thilo Fischer, Berliner Festspiele Blog, 2020, https://blog.berlinerfestspiele.de.
9 Blake Robert Atwood, Underground: The Secret Life of Videocassettes in Iran (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021), 81.
12 Pirooz Kalantari, interview by the author, January 2022.
13 Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri, “Iranian Documentary Filmmakers Association and the Fight for the House of Cinema 1,” in Iranian Cinema in a Global Context, ed. Peter Decherney and Blake Atwood (New York: Routledge, 2014), 164–82. Forty-six episodes are available to watch at https://www.doctv.ir.
14 Blake Robert Atwood, Reform Cinema in Iran: Film and Political Change in the Islamic Republic (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).
15 Barbad Golshiri, interview by Amirali Ghassemi, 2010.
16 Spiritual View Catalogue: Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (Iran: Institute for the Development of Visual Arts, 2003).
17 Mansoor Behnam, “Independent Cinema in Post-1979 Revolution Iran,” Film International 12, no. 3 (2014): 31–51.
18 See Hamid Dabashi, Close Up: Iranian Cinema: Past, Present and Future (London: Verso Books, 2001), 235.
19 Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri, “Iranian Documentary Filmmakers Association and the Fight for the House of Cinema 1,” in Iranian Cinema in a Global Context, ed. Peter Decherney and Blake Atwood (New York: Routledge, 2014), 214.
25 Atwood, Reform Cinema in Iran, 98.
26 Talinn Grigor, Contemporary Iranian Art: From the Street to the Studio (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), 134. The Sa’dabad and Niavaran complexes were built in the nineteenth century and repurposed with galleries, palaces, and museums before the revolution to suit the priorities of those in power.
27 Ibid., 81.
29 Alisa Eimen, “Shaping and Portraying Identity at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (1977–2005),” in Performing the Iranian State, ed. Staci Gem Scheiwiller (Cambridge: Anthem Press, 2013), 92.
30 Grigor, Contemporary Iranian Art, 137.
31 Ibid., 145–46.
32 Susan Habib and Helia Darabi, “Video Art as a Rising Medium in Iranian Contemporary Art” (paper presentation, International Congress of Aesthetics: Aesthetics Bridging Cultures, Ankara, Turkey, July 9–13, 2007).
33 Julia Allerstorfer, quoted in Habib and Darabi, “Video Art as a Rising Medium in Iranian Contemporary Art.”
34 House of Cinema is part of Iranian Alliance of Motion Picture Guilds.
35 Farhad Touhidi, interview by the author, January 2022.
36 Mohammad Shirvani, “Being Alternative to the Bone,” Cinema va Adabiat 12, no. 52 (May–June 2016): 91.
37 Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 4, the Globalising Era, 1984–2010 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 271.
38 Ibid., 51.