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Behnaz Farahi: critical making at the intersection of computer-driven art

Iranian critical maker Behnaz Farahi explores their cutting-edge creative practice along with the theoretical grounding that it is built upon.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Nov 03, 2021

The artist Behnaz Farahi has a practice that is born through a melding of computational design, physical computing, and critical making. It also possesses a strong grounding within theoretical discourse, with topics of feminist theory and anthropology shaping some of their more recent creative projects. Discussing their latest piece, Can The Subaltern Speak, they tell STIR, “This work is inspired by Iranian historical masks used to protect women in marginalised communities from the gaze of the colonial oppressor. The project suggests strategies of resistance for women against contemporary patriarchal control.” Farahi continues, “In doing so, my work brings together design, critical thinking, feminism and artificial intelligence (AI), as two masks begin to communicate with each other, blinking their eyelashes in rapid succession and using AI generated Morse code to communicate with each other. The aim is to develop a secret method of transmitting information between women, thereby undermining patriarchal authority.” Farahi’s piece is set to hypnotic music, and within their presentation, integrates their computational design work with fascinating choreography and typography. What really brings together Can the Subaltern Speak, however, is the unmistakable sense of presence it, and indeed much of their other work possess. Farahi’s subjects dominate the viewer’s attention, demanding and holding it in place.

Farahi’s cape from ‘Caress of the Gaze’ | Behnaz Farahi | STIRworld
Farahi’s cape from Caress of the Gaze Image: Behnaz Farahi

The artist sees the role of design as being to ask questions and challenge dominant outlooks. To this end, they see themselves as a ‘critical maker’, telling STIR “I combine ‘critical thinking’ with ‘practical making’. In my design research, I explore interactive environments at a range of different scales, from an intimate scale and the world of wearable computing, through to an architectural scale and the world of interactive installations. My research centres on the question of how to foster an empathetic relationship between human beings and the world around them in order to address critical issues such as feminism, emotion and socio-political struggle.” Farahi has created a large body of work that speaks to power, sometimes with a wry sense of humour attached. A perfect example of this is Caress of the Gaze, which is a reactive, robotic cape that responds to the gaze of the onlooker. Farahi uses this to explore the male gaze on the female body, programming it to respond as both, a fluid defence system that evokes visions of wild birds, as well as a tool of interrogation and exposition. 

One of the artist’s earlier works, featuring a “living, breathing wall” | Behnaz Farahi | STIRworld
One of the artist’s earlier works, featuring a “living, breathing wall” Image: Behnaz Farahi

The artist was born and raised in Tehran, but has lived and worked in Los Angeles for the last decade. Discussing their creative journey, they say, “Growing up, I was very good at drawing and painting and I wanted to go into Fine Arts. My father was crucial, however, in convincing me that architecture would be a more suitable discipline for me to study, as it is a combination of art and engineering. Soon, I discovered the work of Zaha Hadid, and became fascinated by her, not only because she was an exceptionally visionary architect, but also because she was female and from Iraq, which is my neighbouring country. After I received my master’s degree in Iran, I decided to pursue architecture in the West.” They left a note on the fridge saying “I am going to California!”, and indeed they did. A year later, they would find themselves on a plane headed to Los Angeles, California, wherein they would study architecture at USC. Farahi explains, “I started exploring the implications of new technologies on design and architecture through interactive installations. After my master’s degree I pursued a PhD on the Interdisciplinary Media Art and Practices (iMAP) program at USC School of Cinematic Arts on the same campus.” Here, the artist developed a set of interactive projects ranging in their preoccupations from architecture to fashion, and would also go on to work with several big names such as NASA, Adidas, Autodesk, SteelCase and so on.

Another shot of Farahi’s living wall | Behnaz Farahi | STIRworld
Another shot of Farahi’s living wall Image: Behnaz Farahi

Farahi looks back on their PhD fellowship as a juncture in their life wherein they experimented heavily with pedagogical models from several different disciplines; applying these within their multifaceted practice. These included critical theory, feminism, neuroscience and philosophy, and sculpted Farahi’s larger goal to open up novel approaches to art and design, both, in practice and in purpose. Discussing their stance, they explain, “I believe that integrating emerging technologies into the environment should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a means of addressing broader psychosocial and political issues.”

Iridescence | Behnaz Farahi | STIRworld
Iridescence Image: Behnaz Farahi

Several eminent artists and thinkers helped shape Farahi’s practice. Apart from Hadid, they are also captivated by the films of the late Russian film director, Andrei Tarkovsky, who, interestingly, possesses a strong following among Iranian filmmakers. They elaborate further on their influences, telling STIR, “I was also inspired by Krzysztof Wodiczko, whose artworks engage with technology to address larger socio-political issues. Since moving to the US, I have been introduced to other artists and thinkers, such as Laurie Anderson, Judith Butler and Maya Angelou, who have helped me to understand how a work can speak differently through multiple cultural lenses.” This is an important point to keep in mind when engaging with Farahi’s highly nuanced practice, as it is primarily formed of culture and theory. Can The Subaltern Speak, for example, is grounded heavily within the craft and lived experience of the Bandari women of the Persian Gulf. And yet, it is also built through feminist discourse. It is here at the intersection of culture and theory that Farahi’s work breathes and grows, articulating itself through cutting-edge technology and code. Artists such as Farahi provide impetus for the development of a new dialogue revolving around the perspectives of global and localised minorities. Furthermore, they are continuously shaping a pivotal moment in human history, where the transmission of culture and identity is fast becoming bilateral. With Farahi in particular, their work has most recently been exhibited by the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST). In the past, it has also been featured by Ars Electronica, which they are quite proud of. One may only hope the artist’s fascinating practice receives continued recognition as it evolves, and that it continues to flourish.

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