Los Angeles

Cultural Cross-Pollination: Project Flower

In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center
18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

By Pilar Tompkins Rivas

Project Flower is a collaboration between Los Angeles-based artists Shagha Ariannia (from Tehran, Iran) and Meital Yaniv (from Tel-Aviv, Israel). The collective's work looks at cultural registers, historical moments, and the space between rumor and fact circulating between Iran, Israel, and the United States. Working in a variety of media, Project Flower traces the historical narrative between these nation-states as a departure point for contemporary artworks that seek to establish an expanded dialog in the lacuna of interpersonal and artistic communication between their respective communities.

Artbound recently caught up with the duo -- they like to answer questions collaboratively -- who provided insights into how Los Angeles informs their work and the shared history between Iran and Israel.

"Comrade - The Initiation Meeting, 3pm PCT," Polaroid

What is the background and nature of your partnership? Why do you feel that this is an important conversation to have in Los Angeles?

Our newly formed collaboration started very organically. When we met each other in Los Angeles in 2012, there was an instant curiosity. We recognized that this was the first time that we were meeting someone from "the other" country. Encountering each other under the protective umbrella of our artistic community allowed us an opportunity to learn about one another through a personal lens and away from nation-state identity. We both immigrated to Los Angeles for different reasons and at different times, and for each of us this city became our second home. Coincidentally, Los Angeles has the largest Iranian diaspora and the second largest Israeli diaspora in the world. The two populations share neighborhoods, playgrounds, and supermarkets. We feel it is important to engage these two communities as audience, collaborators, colleagues, and resources. This dialogue is the seed we need to plant in order to coexist.

Seeking to retrace the history of the relationship between your respective countries, you've adopted the name "Project Flower," a joint military enterprise between Iran and Israel in the 1970s, as a departure point for your collaboration. What was that program and how does it relate to your work?

Project Flower was a military program that began in 1977 and ended in 1979, coinciding with the Iranian Revolution. A joint partnership between the Iranian and Israeli governments, Project Flower was an effort to reproduce American-designed missiles with Israeli-made parts for Iran that could be fitted with nuclear warheads. Iran supplied Israel with $280 million worth of oil as a down payment. We decided to use this as our collaborative name because it was the last time, according to public historical accounts, that the two countries "collaborated." Our mission questions the nature of their joint venture, redefining it and taking it in a different direction. We see our Project Flower poetically, growing into a gesture that will welcome people in conflict.

Borders are invisible lines that stir up war. They are as incredible as unicorns. from Project Flower on Vimeo.

Describe some of the artwork that you have produced and are currently developing.

It is important to state that we are a new collaboration and that this is a process of discovery. We are in the midst of making several video works, but at this stage everything that happens within our collective is considered a piece of the puzzle we are putting together. Our exchanges become the words which are shaping our poetry, from our first photograph together, to research notes, and to more deliberate productions. Thus far our work is in conversation with specific historical events. The video piece, "The Match," for instance, romanticizes the last soccer game that Iran and Israel played against one another in 1968 at the finale of the AFC Asian cup. We ask, "do we see sports as the result of political gestures or vice versa?" The aftermath of the match resulted in a verbally abusive rally in the streets of Tehran against the Israeli team. It turned from a game into something more political. It is an overlooked historical incident in the grand scheme of relations between Iran and Israel, but we are interested in looking at the role that cultural events play in collective memory.

Borders are invisible lines that stir up war. They are as incredible as unicorns. [Our video, "Borders,"] refers to the triangular power dynamic between Iran, Israel, and the U.S. over the years. This complex, shifting triad is a point of departure for us to explore outlying issues that remain on the periphery of dialogs orchestrated by geopolitical forces. The political and economic factors motivating international policies, which are sugarcoated in ideologies and propaganda for Iranians, Israelis, and Americans, become our topics of fascination and fetishization. For example, in another piece titled Black Gold aka Persian Perrier aka Saudi Soda aka Texas Tea aka Naft aka Neft, we are interested in engaging the desirable commodities that shape the triangle of conflict through poetic and suspenseful interplay.

What has it been like to uncover the shared history between Iran and Israel as artists? What have you found that has surprised you?

We were both born in the mid-1980s, which means that we were brought up within a conflict that already existed. We grew up knowing that our countries are enemies. The most surprising things we have encountered are finding out what exact events and historical facts have been excluded from our educations back home, in the 80s and 90s, especially the gap of public information during the periods of time when Israel and Iran attempted to be allies due to their geopolitical interests. Both countries identify themselves as the only two non-Arab nations in the region in order to gain power over the Middle East.

On a personal level, we keep finding common cultural registers through our collaboration, whether it's in language, dialect, music, or social values. As artists we have a responsibility to question the influence of social and political systems that we are given. By doing so, we are re-educating ourselves and criticizing our own phobias, stigmas, and stereotypes to find a new way of identifying "the enemy."

How is your work in dialog with the work of artists in your respective countries and how do you respond to shared issues from the vantage point of Southern California?

Political decisions made by national leaders have a direct cause and effect in people's daily lives when you grew up in such countries as we did. The experiences and repercussions of those political agendas are vivid. Conversations around these issues usually happen behind close doors or within the same community. What we lack is a way to lift the screen created by external powers, where we can have dialogues side by side for our own benefit.

Art is always responding to the current political or social status of the place and time of its making. As a continuation of shared issues, we feel that we are a part of a global conversation with other artists. The vantage point that we have formed here is allowing us distance and breathing room that is shaping our view. Our collaboration had to happen outside of our countries because of borders, regulations, visas, etc., so our vantage point is our meeting point.

"Screen shot #3," digital collage

What role do questions of displacement, diaspora, exodus, and return play in your work?

We are talking today from a place of diaspora and displacement; it comes across in our accents, our language barriers, and the use of English as a way of understanding each other and to express our thoughts as one. Our return will always be by going and coming back to a place, whether that be our home country, our mother tongue, our collective memory, or the place of translation.

What does it mean to be women artists responding to this complex political legacy? Does feminism play a role in this project?

Our work process and collaborative practice could never have happened without a feminist process. Confronting the notion of how we identify each other as enemies, colleagues, friends, comrades, or collaborators, we have to be very open to one another's thoughts, ideas and prejudices. We stand in solidarity, without necessarily agreeing, but recognize that the process of building a mutual language is the most important thing. That is feminist process. We think that the only way to deal with and respond to this complex political legacy is through feminist process and practice regardless of one's gender. The only way to really dig in and ask the hard questions is through solidarity.

Black Gold aka Persian Perrier aka Saudi Soda aka Texas Tea aka Naft aka Neft from Project Flower on Vimeo.

What do you hope to achieve with this collaboration?

Iran and Israel are portrayed in the media as serious threats. This is the picture that defines our reality. This reality is shaped by power relations, government needs and tactics, media outlets, and social platforms. Out of all of those images that saturate our memory and consciousness, we would like to create a window, one might even say a crack or a rupture, in our awareness of these filters and how we can attempt to see beyond them.

One of the ways that we are building our narrative is by using fiction. Fiction can change the frame of our reality. We hope to create a safe space of consideration, allowing ourselves the option to listen. Yet as Judith Butler said, that process may take place from an externalized position: "The ability to narrate ourselves not from the first person alone, but from, say, the position of the third, or to receive an account delivered in the second, can actually work to expand our understanding of the forms that global power has taken."

Approaching our work as Project Flower, we have set parameters for our research, insisting that we go through materials, such as historical and theoretical texts, side by side. In this way we may trade cultural experiences and insights outside of what has been recorded. Within our framework, it is crucial for us to debate and to exchange by being present in the same physical space. The pace in which we are walking together is a careful one, as we try to be conscious at all times, understanding that through social experience we can change the political mind set.

Are there any existing or potential repercussions that either of you face in undertaking this collaboration, whether they be familial, social, or political?

As we learn to identify "the enemy" that is in front of us, we know that the most important thing is to be conscious of the power of words. When you put these three words, "Israel," "Iran," and "collaboration" in one sentence in the context of an unstable political arena, there is already the possibility of repercussions in ways that could be beyond our control. By taking on this act of collaboration, we are conscious of those possibilities. However, our hope and goal for this undertaking is to follow a positive direction. At this point it is too naive for us to predict the outcome. Or as Audre Lorde said, "And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger."

About Shagha Ariannia:
Born in 1984, in Tehran, Iran, Shagha Ariannia is an interdisciplinary visual artist. Her work has been exhibited at Commonwealth and Council, Art Platform, Co/lab and the Torrance Art Museum in Los Angeles and Galarie der Hochschule in Braunschweig, Germany. Ariannia holds an MFA from CalArts and a BA from the University of California, Irvine.

About Meital Yaniv:
Meital Yaniv is an Israeli-born and Los Angeles-based artist. Currently an MFA candidate at CalArts, she received her BFA from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem in 2011. Together with Eve LaFountain and Ali Kheradyar, Yaniv initiated the conversation series, Feminism Today in May 2013.

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Top Image: "The Match," still from video.

About the Author

Pilar Tompkins Rivas is Director of Residency Programs at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. She has served as arts project coordinator at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, curator of the Claremont Museum of Art and ...
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