Background and Context
Visiting Arts has been working with Iran since research led to a curators’ visit to Tehran in 2000. Since then Visiting Arts has led various producer visits to the Fadjr International Theatre Festival in Tehran, run in country workshop on theatre management with over 50 Iranian artists in attendance, and another curators visit in April 2009. Most recently, Visiting Arts has begun a long term skills exchange programme, Contemporary Myths, which gives UK and Iranian directors the opportunity to share practice and work creatively together around the theme of myth in contemporary performance.
After such an in-depth relationship with the country and artists practicing there in theatre and visual arts, Visiting Arts felt that Iran would be an ideal international location for a 1mile² project as it would provide further opportunities to artists and citizens to express themselves and develop relationships with a global community of like-minded people. It would also allow us to continue to build on the strong cultural relations we have forged over the last ten years with a project that reaches deeper into communities and the ecology of a city many UK citizens hear very little about.
Local delivery coordinator
Kianoosh Vahabi, Director, The Interdisciplinary Office for Art and Architecture (IOAA)
Visiting Arts sent out an open call in the UK for an artist based in the East London area to take up a residency in Tehran. East London was specified to correlate with the location of an existing UK 1mile² project in Waltham Forest, creating a natural relationship between the two square miles.
Dr Bahram Zehzad was selected as the ecologist to participate in the programme. He has over 30 years of experience working in Iran and is Head Lecturer in biodiversity and ecology studies at the University of Tehran. He also brought an assistant ecologist onboard to participate alongside him.
The Tehran 1mile² took place in downtown Tehran in an area encompassing the University of Tehran, the Museum of Modern Art, the Laleh Park, the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, and the Navvab area among other landmarks and neighbourhoods.
Navvab was chosen in particular for being the site of extensive structural regeneration which has had huge implications on the local community. Once a traditional neighbourhood, both in architecture and sensibilities, Navvab is now divided by a busy and dangerous flyover motorway with no pedestrian crossing, flanked on both sides by high rise developments that are half-empty and too expensive for the local population to inhabit.
The mixed nature of the square mile chosen was design to represent each element of Tehran life – community, education, art, culture, society, the speedy and often un-planned urban development, and nature.
The 1mile² project started during one of Iran’s most turbulent periods of the last decade: the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections. Not long after starting the project there were mass protests in the streets all over the city. Despite the contextual situation, the decision was made for the project to go ahead as the artists selected were willing to continue and work creatively within the boundaries established.
Due to the political and social unrest, it was deemed unsafe to structure regular participant involvement from the local community. Projects need a government permit to do this in Iran, and as any large group gatherings were being treated suspiciously at the time, the team took the decision not to risk putting artists and participants in danger.
It was decided that the project would involve a group of four local artists, instead of just one, who would work together collaboratively on the project with an ecologist, the local delivery coordinator and the international artist, involving community residents in the square mile where possible, and mobilising their own networks of artists, family and friends to engage with the project on an informal basis. This way the project could achieve a broad reach without attracting controversy.
Activity took place between December 2009 and April 2010 with the group of four local artists and Dr Zehzad the ecologist, coordinated by Kianoosh Vahabi, meeting at least once a week to discuss and plan how to take the project forward. Over 20 meetings took place at Kianoosh’s studio, which doubles as the workspace for the IOAA, and occasionally at Azad Gallery, a small avant garde gallery space in central Tehran that pledged to support the project and hold an exhibition of outcomes towards the end.
The core team involved up to 16 other artists in the project informally.
Some of the activities that the local group initiated were:
- A photo essay on Navvab Highway being one of the main aquarium sales centres in Tehran.
- A series of photos entitled ‘A Strong Napthalene Smell’ taken of people walking the streets of the square mile.
- Creation of a journey through the square mile using images of the city and quotations from Alice in Wonderland to reveal Tehran’s ‘extremes and absurdities’.
- An excursion to photograph banners from the Moharram processions that went through the square mile in December, an event of national mourning for the death of Imam Hussein.
- An exploration of Iranian workers who emigrated to Japan and later returned, most of them buying Peykan cars and becoming unregistered taxi drivers, adorning their cars with Japanese memorabilia.
- Recording levels of noise pollution at different points in the square mile, using a mobile phone application.
- Researching bird species in Tehran and tracking the way that climate change is affecting migration patterns.
- An excursion into Laleh Park and a short essay on its history, as it began life as an army base. They also identified species that live in the park, documenting its biodiversity.
Andrew Dodds’ residency
Andrew spent 10 days in Tehran at the end of January 2010, working with the team and doing research of his own in the city. The residency period was short due to the diplomatic situation. Andrew began his relationship with the locally-base team from the outset of the project via Skype (online chat) and email.
Discussions and ideas that arose during his visit include:
- Looking at ‘reclaiming’ outdoor space such as roof terraces, which people no longer use as social spaces due to the fear of being watched. Andrew suggested projects that would repopulate these spaces – utilising them to create grow boxes with residents of the buildings that they would communally tend, creating a relationship between each other and the process of cultivating food.
- Working in the Tehran bazaar with local traders and makers to follow their movements in the great bazaar with cameras attached to their goods trollies that rattle through the narrow cobbles streets all day. Essentially an exploration of this microcosm of production and trade, the project would provide an insight into one of the most powerful economic hubs in Iran, based to the south of the square mile.
- Building relationships with local residents and exploring their private gardens. Many have plants and fruit trees from other parts of Iran, and telling the story of how and why these plants were brought to the capital would bring the plants and the characters who own them to life. The team could also study how these plants have changed in the dry, polluted city air.
- Studying earthquake-prone areas of the city (Tehran sits on many fault lines and experts say that a destructive quake is imminent).
The local artists in Tehran decided to focus on a social intervention in Laleh park and a final exhibition at Azad Gallery, to show images from their intervention and other projects carried out during the 1mile² programme period.
Laleh Park intervention
The Persian New Year is celebrated on the 21 March every year to mark the first day of spring, and thirteen days later (siz-dah be dar) people partake in a tradition to go out into nature, picnic and spend time with loved ones. The Tehran 1mile² team decided to make the most of this opportunity and created an interactive experience in Laleh park for people picnicking around them. They set out a table and brought food and cameras, encouraging fellow picnickers to share and exchange food and stories, and invited them to use the cameras to document their experience.
On siz-dah be dar it is customary for people to throw away green cress and flowers they have used to decorate their new years table spread. The group also began discussions with community participants on the nature of waste, discussing other ways the greens could be used and recycled – for cooking, planting, etc. – as an alternative to disposing of them.
The intervention lasted a few hours and raised a good deal of awareness and discussion about waste, ritual and the importance of nature in our traditional and contemporary lives.
Azad Gallery Exhibition
Following the Laleh Park intervention, Azad Gallery in Tehran, an independent space on the fringes of the square mile, hosted an exhibition on the whole 1mile² experience from 30 April to 5 May 2010, including work made independently by all the artists involved around the themes of 1mile².
All of the artists involved mentioned that working on 1mile² had enabled them to rediscover one of the busiest and most powerful social, educational and economic hubs of their city, and has spurred strong ideas for future development in their work:
Now I have a reliable and honest collection of high quality sounds describing this specific region of Tehran. Sounds which for sure vary and change during time and will only be a part of the memory of the people living here at the certain time and place. Sounds of crowded small streets, big highways, metro and bus stations, building structures, taxi drivers shouting, prayers call and music being played in the streets and others. – Bijan Moosavi
Of course this project has opened many new fields. The Alice [in Wonderland – see above] project will continue. – Neda Razavipour
I was kind of familiar with the [1mile²] area, but working on this area which is like the heart of all movements, in this special period was quite interesting. – Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar
Andrew Dodds was fascinated by the dynamics of social interactions, particularly in the division between public and private space in the Iranian social and physical existence. The ideas generated through his discussions and research with the local artists (listed above) are potential projects that we hope will continue to flourish in future visits to Iran. By the local artists’ own admissions his perspective and personal approaches to arts practice opened many new avenues of thought and concept for them, paving the way for a strong long-term mutual artistic dialogue.
Heartfelt thanks go out to all of the artists and individuals involved in the programme delivery, and everyone who engaged with the project by directly participating in activities, attending the exhibition, or online. Thanks to Amirali Ghasemi for his assistance in nominating local Tehran artists, and also to Salette Gressett of Arts Council England and Emma Williams for assisting with the artist selection. We’re indebted to Nasrin, our travel agent, for sorting out our visas.