Interviews, Recent

Interview // When Haptic Touch is Removed: A Conversation with Maryam Monalisa Gharavi

by Serena Solin | Associate Editor

Maryam Monalisa Gharavi is an artist working across mediums, from poetry and translation to net art, film, and performance. Her work takes many forms, from the Twitter-performance piece Bio to the video project Life of Mohammed, united by fascination with (and suspicion of) the technologies that permeate contemporary life, from facial recognition to surveillance at large, to the conflicting potentialities of social media. At the start of the global quarantine, we chatted between New York and Brazil about states of renunciation, virtuality, Pasolini, and the professionalization of art. 

Lovescript, 2017, video installation by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi. Photo credit: Peter Mauney.

Serena Solin: In your book Dictionary of Night (Ashkal Alwan, 2019), written collaboratively with Mirene Arsanios, there’s a passage that references “certain infrastructures that are best formed at night, in a living room or any room capacious enough to contain a group.” What is life like without that infrastructure due to COVID-19?

Maryam Monalisa Gharavi: When Mirene and I were thinking about how to write a piece together, the thing that both of us kept coming back to over and over, in fact the guiding word of Dictionary of Night, was the word “infrastructure.” We were thinking very locally—she and I were both in the middle of New York dramas. In New York there’s a crisis and an opportunity every day. We were in the middle of our own infrastructural problems, thinking also about the infrastructure of Lebanon, where the work was to be published. The other thing we thought a lot about was how intellectual women have created infrastructures for each other and together across time, including the nineteenth century Arab salon. These were wide and vast things we felt had a home in Night, the portion of life that is somewhat protected from the rapacious productivity of the day in the capitalist regime. 

I think that the pandemic has shown a remarkably clear mirror of our societies back to us, in the ways we have prioritized productivity over reproductivity, by which I mean care. Reproduction is a space of unpaid labor and it, along with other forms of work that are now being called essential, are forms of care. These are not just productive jobs but also reproductive jobs; they require a certain aspect of caretaking without which we stop. 

But it’s never any one thing. I have a couple of lenses onto the world given that I’ve experienced the pandemic completely from Brazil, which of course is not a single entity. To see how a highly sociable, informal society has had to contend with not being able to congregate—one example I can give you is on Friday evenings my neighbors lose their minds! I have affection for that, but it’s gotten harder and harder to deal with the noise as the weeks have progressed. At some point people just have to give in and until four in the morning adults, children, the youngest to the oldest members of the family—I can hear them dancing, blasting music. 

Then of course there’s the lens of my home—New York and Brooklyn specifically, hearing news of friends who have contracted the virus. I have a family member in Iran who passed away about two weeks ago and obviously there’s no sending of flowers, phone calls even, and having that kind of infrastructural access through the web has been very difficult. I don’t know if a funeral is possible and of course being from a country that is persona non grata in a globalized world, there’s a real expectation of disaster or near-apocalypse. Iran was among the first countries to be devastated by the virus along with Italy and China. I think that works on you psychologically even if you’re sheltered and protected and have food in your fridge and high-speed internet, which I’ve been lucky to have.

So I’ve been interested in the infrastructure of socializing and the infrastructure of intimacy, too. I haven’t hugged another human being in months. What happens when that haptic touch is removed? What takes its place? How much internet is too much internet? I think we long ago left the idea that we are too addicted to screens; I don’t think we really can live without them anymore. How much of it is dissociative and not even reproductive or necessarily about care, but a real desire to escape this anxiety?

In your bio you’re described as an artist whose work “explores the interplay between aesthetic and political valences in the public domain.” A piece of yours that I especially enjoyed was your Ramadan Diaries for The New Inquiry, which at least have the premise of being transplanted from the private sphere to the public. In your work, what is the relationship between the public and private? To ask the question another way, do you think of yourself as a public or private artist?

Well, I’m currently teaching a class on privacy and data. It’s called “Privacy and Media Technologies.” 

Is the thesis of the class that there is no privacy?

It’s funny you say that, because one of the things I try to do is systematically examine what our assumptions are about privacy. One is that you have nothing to hide; another is that there is no privacy anyway. One of the things that I try to impress on my students is that privacy is a lot like free will; I don’t really believe in free will, I don’t really, truly think that I have it. I’m a person that was born in a particular moment in a particular culture, assimilated in other cultures, I am a human female-gendered person with a particular set of hormones—to believe in free will as an end-all be-all is the height of hubris. At the same time, I have to believe that I have free will in order to get out of bed in the morning, put my clothes on, and make my coffee. Similarly, we know that we don’t have privacy in the public sphere, but we have to behave as if we do and that it’s worth defending. 

One of my favorite readings that the students do is an essay by a poet named Dawn Herrera Helphand called “Into the Cave.” The cave that she’s talking about is Plato’s cave, but it’s also a place that was necessary for her to enter mentally and physically as she gave birth to her child. She talks about the necessary space of privacy in the act of giving birth. You wouldn’t necessarily think to put the laboring person into a conversation about privacy and data. As an artist, I have to operate in a particular public context and a public domain and that is only growing in necessity; there’s a real move to professionalize the artist that we don’t stop to think about critically. Everything from the studio visit to traditional exhibition have become points of professionalization, publicizing aspects of the artistic method that previously went unseen by the public. At the same time, I am someone who likes to believe, perhaps naively but very firmly and almost religiously, in the importance of privacy and the importance of the Cave. 

The Ramadan Diaries came out of a private and personal process that I had been going through. I had not partaken in fasting in something like a decade, not in any serious way. It also outed me to a certain extent—observing Ramadan publicly has certain implications, and it’s not up to me to decide if those are good or bad. I wanted to keep the word “diaries” in the title because I wanted to look at this experience as an internal, interior, almost domestic process: the way that you hold a routine, the way you go through your hours in a context that is not favorable to Ramadan (a “Western” working world)—what does the interior of that look like? There’s a domesticity there that’s analogical to privacy and so it was important to me to keep the word diary instead of “report” or “journal,” to try and make visible something that is often offsite. For adherents, people who are quite devout, Ramadan is a deeply private experience, and quite honestly I was hoping to learn something from it. I’m not sure if that’s too earnest a statement, but I was interested in what it would be like to produce something almost daily and sequentially, and live as the month was happening.

It’s currently Ramadan again and this is my first time practicing Ramadan in a tropical environment as an adult and under COVID, so I am undertaking a domestic, interior, more contemplative practice under quarantine in a place where I am very isolated… this current experience is profoundly different. I’m glad that the Diaries exist as a private document in a public timeline. Writing 45,000 words in a public way made me think about the virtuality of domesticity, not just kitchens and sinks but the entire non-virtual reality. So much of thought is already a virtual experience, so when you’re in a state of renunciation or a state of fasting, your thoughts are less sharp. It’s a sensory experience. I was reminded of Henri Michaux who kept a diary of what it was like to trip on mescaline and included drawings with his work. I was also thinking of Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, a private and institutional experience made somehow digestible. 

When thinking about digital security, I wonder if the sheer amount of information might allow you to hide, if your information is accessible at all times by many parties but at the same time no one’s really looking at you except as part of a demographic, and I wonder if that applies to art in a way as well—if it’s possible to be a private individual working publicly and still slide under the radar… if that’s perhaps the most desirable way to exist as an artist today, such that even the people around you don’t really know what your work is

That’s a really common assumption about privacy and data. One of the things that a lot of research into that unseen world—the underbelly of data technology—has concluded is that our smallness is what makes us so valuable. I hope writing can be the opposite of that, or conceptual art, or any experience of time and space and language that is deliberate—that art can oppose what McKenzie Wark has named the post-capitalist platform. You think you’re a user but you’re actually a data set and your data can conglomerate into a powerful vector that affects how you are viewed, and how things are sold to you, and in doing so change your world until it looks nothing like the world that you used to know. It’s a stunning time that we live in.

One thing I’m curious about is the difference between the aggregate and the public. What’s the difference between an open and receiving readership versus the more visible, and often more hostile, internet audience? Are they real? Are they different? Do we approach them in a different way, consciously and/or unconsciously? 

This is a simpler question on its face but perhaps equally difficult to answer: you are an artist working in an impressive number of mediums, including translation, performance, film, visual art, fiction, essay, and I’m sure there are others. Which medium came first? And who was the first artist you loved that worked in multiple mediums?

For a long time in my studio at art school the only personal item that I had was a black-and-white photo of [Pier Paolo] Pasolini. Pasolini might sound like a strange artist to choose given not only the mediums that he worked in but the place he held in Italian society at his time, but it’s precisely for that reason that his versatility appeals to me so much. There is a rigorous versatility where he’s writing poetry in his Friulian mother-tongue, but he’s also writing journalism in the form of combative, position-taking editorials in Corriere della Sera. At the same time he’s directing epic, theatrical, highly dramatic features for cinema—literally Biblical epics. You could argue he worked in landscape architecture in his features. At the same time he’s living a tumultuous personal life, eventually leading to a tortured and unknowable death. His entire arc has always fascinated me. There’s an uncompromising vision in that work that required fearlessness and sensitivity regardless of the medium in which he chose to operate, while still always choosing the medium deliberately.

There are many operations of art and artistic method. We might think of art as freedom without force. The meaning of art is everybody’s business, not mine, but what art is can still be a relevant and galvanizing question. One of the things that art is to me is form. I care about it a lot. The idea that I must find and justify form is always on my mind. 

In terms of which medium came first, that’s also a profound question. When my family first immigrated to the United States, like many immigrants, my early experiences were of institutions. In first grade I remember there were contests for poetry and drawing, opportunities for children to submit their work, and I remember being equally moved toward both mediums. My tentacle of understanding in the world was always language. My task is to organize language, time, and space, and hopefully reimagine them in a way that is relevant and rigorous to the content. One of the ways this has played out in visual form is through the live film: the aliveness of asynchronous reality versus asynchronous form, such as a video in a gallery that has been prerecorded. There are certain assumptions we make about “liveness” in the end. What could the live film be? How can I get to the liminal edge of synchronous and asynchronous time and form? That’s one of the ways I’ve worked for the past six years or so.

I do tend to be more cautious about what kinds of images I put in the world. This might be my own dissatisfaction and nausea or malaise about how images are circulated. As the saying goes, can you improve upon silence in creating a particular sound? We do well to study music, to think about how sound artists and musicians have approached that question. Silence is the ultimate form, even masterpiece, if you will, so I think about the images I make and make them less frequently for that reason. 

I have a final question. You are the author of South/South, which you describe as an open text, and I like your framing of an open text as something more academic and less personal than a blog. How did you begin working with “open texts”? Does an “open text” “close” when you stop writing it (as in your project Bio)? To you, what can be accomplished in an “open text” that an essay or book can’t do? What are some other “open texts” that you enjoy? 

An open text is a text in a virtual domain that has not been ended. It’s not so much that I want to avoid the word blog, because that is how South/South started in 2009 and how it’s hosted today at The New Inquiry since 2012, but the open text could also be a Twitter feed. It could be a Tumblr account. Anything whose scroll is perpetual until the user dies or the account is closed or something happens to that finitude. At that point, it becomes a text. South/South is still open—I am alive, I keep it alive, I water it from time to time. 

More personally in terms of process, calling South/South an open text makes me think that it’s okay to share process and procedure with a perceived public. Is there a space where the public can enter my work? The open text is a space of accessibility. The fact that I can instantaneously publish the piece, that I can do what I want with it with no editorial oversight and no censorship and no pedantic mission statement, allows me to think about the public in a way that works which take more time do not. Sometimes I do something in the space of that open text that becomes a more concrete work. I wrote an essay on Michael Brown Jr.’s killing by Darren Wilson called “Transcript on a Face.” While “Transcript on a Face” was published in The New Inquiry’s magazine as a standalone essay, it started out inside a space of examination that didn’t necessarily point to a conclusion. In the end I was able to draw a connection between Wilson’s description of Brown’s face to medieval demonology. 

Being able to feel the currency of the moment and the vitality of movements is precious to me. I’m not currently on social media. My account was surreptitiously deleted during the summer of 2018 when Twitter started cracking down on spam accounts, the same summer when Bio was printed, when I decided I needed to take an indeterminate break from Twitter. But you can’t take an indeterminate break; your account gets deleted after a month. I had been on Twitter from 2009-2018, almost a decade. I had built friendships there, collaborations. My entire relationship with Metahaven started on Twitter. The space was many things, not just one. Unfortunately on day 31, whatever day I reactivated, the company had completely scrubbed their visible server of my account, so much so that you could actually become @southsouth. Despite attempts to straighten it out, I felt it was for the best, meant to be. At this point my relationship with Twitter is as a post-text; I don’t exist. 

My reason for staying off social media is not because I want to take an anti-establishment position at all times, but because there is a real asymmetry of power on social media. We’ve talked about being part of a conglomerated data set; as a user (and there are only two industries that call their customers users!) you have very little recourse to delete yourself. Your work, your posts, your Tweets, always have a thumbnail, always have a shadow reality out there somewhere. Not being able to erase yourself in a time of NSA secrets, when especially brown and Black people are heavily monitored, there’s a lot of value in thinking about how to use social media against its primary aims in order to write that asymmetry. Other than my dream selfies on Instagram, I have taken a real pause on furthering my use of those mediums which I consider to be in more ways destructive and disruptive for me at this moment than they are productive. 

The fact that you can’t erase yourself but that they can erase you says a lot about the power that they have.

Maryam Monalisa Gharavi is an artist, poet, and theorist whose work explores the interplay between aesthetic and political valences in the public domain. Her translation of Waly Salomão’s Algaravias: Echo Chamber (Ugly Duckling Presse) earned a nomination for a 2017 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Other publications include The Distancing Effect (BlazeVOX), Alphabet of an Unknown City (Belladonna*), Bio (Inventory Press), and Secret Catalan Poem (The Elephants). She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and an M.F.A. from Bard College.

Serena Solin is a writer living in Maspeth, NY, and Associate Editor at Poetry Northwest.