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(mis)remembering and (re)interpreting history with tara fatehi irani: mishandled archive
anahi saravia herrera
Tara Fatehi Irani is a multidisciplinary performer, writer and artist working with ''fabricated histories, fictionalised facts, mistranslated memories and unattended archives''. Born in Tehran and based in the UK, her practice is self-described as an action, and as an approach to her interests, rather than being bound to any one medium. In the way that Fatehi Irani uses it, history is destabilised, broken and splintered into stories. She picks up the pieces and takes them away from the whole, cutting holes in them, disconnecting them from each other, and re-stitching them together again.
In her latest book, Mishandled Archive (LADA, 2020) Fatehi Irani presents a 2017 year-long, daily project where she scattered parts of an archive of personal family photographs and documents, as well as those belonging to other family collections, wherever she was (from London to Tehran and beyond). The photographs were cut and collaged to form archival fragments and disjointed images. Fatehi Irani then created a public choreography to be performed with every part of the archive, the record of which was written on the reverse side of the archival fragments themselves, in turn left where they were installed. The artist documented this process on Instagram. All of these images have now been published in Mishandled Archive, alongside contributions from a range of authors and writing by the artist. The project Mishandled Archive has taken many iterations, it has shape-shifted across mediums, and when asked to describe the project Fatehi Irani says:
Tara Fatehi Irani (TFI): It's a multi-state project that has had different phases and different lives that intersect each other at different times. It started with this year long series of making daily performances in public, I say performance because there was an act of performance, of me making a dance on the spot. At the same time, it was an act of dispersing a family archive, a kind of made up family archive, it wasn’t just one but several family photographs and documents in a public space wherever I happened to be. […] I was leaving a photograph somewhere every day and making a little installation with it. […] Each of these everyday actions is site specific, that was a big part of it - where is the spot I am going to do this in? What photo matches this space, and why? This was all phase one. Right after I finished the 365 pieces, I started to create a studio performance with it. […] This was a collaboration between me and musician and sound artist Pouya Ehsaei, where we tried to create a space that transports the audience. It’s a mix of music and participatory dance, and stories, and storytelling. And then there’s the book! All of the more tangible documents from the processes came together in the book. All the stages in the process complement each other, they are interdependent and I am hoping the book becomes an object of art in itself.
One of the first things that emerges from the Mishandled Archive, for me as someone who is obsessively thinking of archives and archiving as a practice, was the methodological proposition created by a process of mishandling. Fatehi Irani’s approach to her work with archives is something she recommends to others, in the introduction to her book she writes:
“Mishandling, in the sense that I use it, is a methodology through which an archive can be shared and opened to engagement. It is a proposal for a different way of handing which may be seen as rough or poor but nonetheless a way of caring for the archive.” (13)
To this she adds:
TFI: I don’t think that what I’m doing here is destroying. There is an element of care here, both for the material and the stories and the histories that it carries and the histories that are missing in some ways. […] You know, actually, the way an archive material can live longer is through interaction, the act of disseminating it is key here because […] it's actually through creating more interactions with the archive that I find a way of preserving it, not in its actual form or single narrative that it might have been carrying but opening it up through juxtaposing it in new circumstances, new conversations and interpretations. This is what I am trying to do by connecting archival material to new sites where I (current day Tara) am, […] and also through that action communicate it with other people. […] It’s about making new connections and opening up new trajectories for the material.
In this method, the preservation is hinged on the archives' misinterpretation and on the collective ownership of the material in a public space. No longer is a photo of Fatehi Irani’s family in a photo album, embedded within her family history, but on an abandoned bridge, in a nightclub or in a park. These spaces, combined with Fatehi Irani’s dances and their documentation, invite us to imagine the histories locked in the material. This is how the archive continues, not in its physical form but through an experience of a historical fragment that intersects the lives of the audience both physically and online, depending on which they encounter.
In this process it feels as though we are losing facts, or rather that facts are being purposefully misplaced to create space for imagination. Archival objects stop being mere records of events but become sites of remembering and (mis)remembering; after all, this is in some way how our memory works too. Fatehi Irani’s work straddles this line, jumping between fact and fiction and dissolving the boundary between the two. When asked about the relationship between history and fiction in her work with archives Fatehi Irani says:
TFI: There is no binary of history and fiction, there is no dichotomy […] History inherently is just stories that have been told more and through more official narratives […]. [My work] is a bit of both and it is going back and forth on this spectrum between fact and fiction. For me, this is a very productive place to be, […] in terms of not being absolutely factual or absolutely fictional […]. I’m interested in when people interact with my project, seeing how [ they] struggle with this confusion of: what is real, what isn’t real? And that’s part of it too. There have been many people and mediums between the stories and what I know. [...] So they are already fictionalised, they are always already mediated.
The idea of mediated history is an interesting lens through which to view Fatehi Irani’s work, because if we consider history not as a process of recording fact, but as a game of telephone where stories are mediated from person to person, we can consider Fatehi Irani’s work as replicating this process through performance and image making. The way that the work is created is not to reveal the ‘truth’ behind the story, but as a response to the look of the archival photograph or document, to the history of it and to the site-specific context and what new things this might reveal about the archive. By producing new ways of encountering the archive through Instagram, experiences of the archive ‘on location’, and choreographies, the archival material is re-contextualized and mediated. There is no way to separate the fact from the fiction, although there is some layering of clues in the work itself— whether they be in the choreographies, in the images or in the hashtags on Instagram. Fatehi Irani’s work creates an interpretation space for us to encounter history and create new understandings of it, in this way extending the stories in the archive by layering them with our own.
The audience is necessary in this work as the (mis)interpretation and appropriation of the archive into individual memories and histories through Fatehi Irani’s performances and images is essential to how the project manages to extend the archives beyond themselves. The audience and the public are an active part of this archiving practice, which is a serious departure from what we usually expect in archiving, which in the process of preserving, cataloguing and protecting, results in withholding collections from our everyday use. When asked about the role of the public in the project, Fatehi Irani says:
TFI: The project has engaged with different levels of [the] public since it started. Initially when I was standing somewhere doing a dance or coming up with a movement, or spending 45 minutes taking a picture, people would come and talk to me and be like “what are you doing, what's your problem?” That was one layer of interaction early on. And then some people [...] found the photographs and got in touch with me, and […] some of them I know now have the book so they’ve gone full cycle. And for many people it seems to have resonated with them in terms of working with family archives, so that's another thing that comes out of it [...], just planting the initial seeds of: get your albums out […].
The use of the digital in this is interesting, as the project’s Instagram ‘life’ becomes a different archive of images, it opens up a whole new avenue of interaction of how people can experience the work and come across the stories.
TFI: From day one it was part of the original plan to use Instagram but the complications with it and with the hashtags gradually developed. You can see this in the book, at the beginning it was like #OneYearPerformance #Isthisart #Liveart, just describing what it [was], and then [...] at some point I started treating the hashtags as a form of giving people information and looking at the disjunction between the information and the image, and of course I was conscious of inserting these photographs into other archives and online categories.
The way Fatehi Irani has posted the works using different hashtags, means that each image is now buried in a different collection, whether it’s #LiveArt or #babyphoto or #mothergoose, each of these tags re-contextualize the photo and places it somewhere where it may find new meaning. In this way, hashtags and Instagram become a kind of archeological site and digital entry point to the work. It is a modern site of historic encounters.
However, the archives are mishandled, whether they are rained on, cut apart, or lost and then found in the digital, it is a process that opens up new possibilities of using history, not as a backdrop to our lives but as a material to be played with, distorted and appropriated. Fatehi Irani has created a method of extending our archival stories that lives outside of institutions, history books and photo albums. It is a method for artists but also for archivists of the everyday and historians of the imaginary. If everyone has a story, and those stories are threads, Fatehi Irani’s work is like a loom, crossing and knotting these threads together through encounters of past and present. By mishandling the archive we are making our own marks on it, but also letting it mark us.
“These mishandled archives choose to suggest hitherto unknown
and otherwise impossible futures for our distorted past.” (14)
Mishandled Archive is published by Live Art Development Agency
and supported by Arts Council England. Available here.
TARA FATEHI IRANI (1987, Tehran) is a performer, artist and writer. Her work is primarily concerned with the ephemeral interactions between memories, words, bodies and sites. She works with performance, voice, text, dance, video, photography, mistranslation, site-specificity and historical inaccuracies. She has performed in houses, basements, streets and gyms and at the Royal Academy of Arts, SPILL Festival, Nuffield Theatre, Battersea Arts Centre, Toynbee Studios, HighFest (Yerevan), A Corner in the World (Istanbul), FLAM (Amsterdam) and Molavi Theatre (Tehran) amongst others. She currently teaches at Goldsmiths University of London and Central School of Speech and Drama. WEBSITE. INSTAGRAM. TWITTER.
ANAHI SARAVIA HERRARA is a London-based creative researcher, writer and community organiser. As a creative practitioner her practice involves a creative research process includes creating anything from playlists and sounds to writing or collaborating with others. She is passionate about bringing research techniques to creative outputs and collaborating with artists to create multidisciplinary works. Archives are a core part of her work and she often works from her own collected archive of sounds, notes and family photographs. She is interested in themes of collective memory and how we can use archives to tell unseen stories and collectively re-imagine history and the future. Currently she is thinking about the transnational Latinx community and particularly in the diaspora experience of the Latinx community in the UK. INSTAGRAM. WEBSITE.
(Image credits: by kind permission of Tara Fatehi Irani)