Interview with
Setareh Shahbazi
Might Be Good, Issue 89, June 8, 2007

Between May 21 to May 25, freelance curator Pelin Uran spoke with Setareh Shahbazi, an artist who paints digitally, sculpts and produces installations, in Bodrum, on the southern coast of Turkey. Shahbazi participated in the group exhibition Rainbow at Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Beirut (2005), J’en rêve at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris (2005) and Wie eine Fatamorgana at the House of World Cultures in Berlin (2004). Her work has been featured in solo exhibitions at Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe (2004) and at Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Hamburg (2006).

Pelin Uran: Shall we start by talking about your family? There are three Shahbazis, all siblings in the art world. Solmaz Shahbazi is, a film and video-maker; Shirana Shahbazi, a photographer, and you, Setareh Shahbazi, are a new media artist. All of you are successful in different ways. How did this come about? Being the youngest, were you influenced by your siblings' choices? How do the artist-family dynamics work among you?

Setareh Shahbazi: My family, yes! We all ended up making art through fields connected to art production, but more applied. Solmaz studied architecture at an art academy, Shirana studied photography at a technical university and I began my studies in scenography, which was supposed to be set and exhibition design, at a university for art and new media. But over the years and with a few detours, we all ended up making art. We always had stuff to paint with when we were young, since my father, who is an architect, used to paint as well. Our parents were quite supportive of us in our respective fields. I guess we might have scared them a little by saying we wanted to study business administration or something.

I would say it was more the milieu we grew up in that affected our choices. Also, the conditions we lived in as children meant we have always been very close. Shirana and I used to play awful violin duos together. We played volleyball in the same team and we still happen to have the same haircut every now and then. As you know, Solmaz and I have been neighbors since last year, so I wash my clothes at her house and sometimes she cooks Iranian dishes for me or lends me some of her chic outfits for openings.

PU: I see the reciprocal influence. Back to you! You studied media arts at Karlsruhe, which has an affiliation with ZKM, a center for art and media and a contemporary art museum. Was the combination of the research center, a school and a museum constructive? How connected were you to ZKM? Were you, as students, able to take the advantage of this structure?

SS: When I started studying in 1997, the whole institution was very young, and had lots of ambitions to carry out research in the fields between the arts and technology or new media, which was definitely useful and important in the middle or towards the end of the 1990s. We had all the new toys and equipment and many people from very different fields of research were passing through the tiny boring city of Karlsruhe because of ZKM. We also had constant access to the two museums—the Media-Museum and the Museum for New Arts, which shows work from contemporary collections. We were also allowed into Mediathek, a great library with a big video and audio archive, where I had a job for quite a while.

There was a very intense concentration of artists, philosophers, media theoreticians, scientists, musicians, etc., which had a subtle but great impact on the students and on the way we approached our projects. But because this impact was so widely spread, it also had the power to confuse you badly.

PU: Having been surrounded by media art and theory for those years at Karlsruhe, would you call yourself a new media artist? Do you think the term “new media art” is a working, informative or practical one?

SS: I was going to complain about the term “new media artist” after your first question, but I forgot with all the family stories!

I think the term is obsolete now. There is no point in differentiating between media artists and “real” artists? I guess we’ve had enough of playing around with new tools, so it’s time to concentrate again on content. Most of the people I studied with or at least the ones who ended up making art, experimented for a while and ended up making very low-tech work, like myself. I use Photoshop, the mouse and the pen-tool for my drawings and wood, an electrical saw and lacquer for the cut-outs and spatial elements.

PU: I was about to ask you about the technical aspects of your work. You make not only drawings using the computer but also sculptures and installations. How important is handicraft for you?

SS: Handicraft is very important to me. I have lots of fun working with materials, colors, etc., so I really enjoy building the spatial parts myself and dealing with the handicaps and characteristics of different materials or media.

For me, the computer drawings are just one of the media I use; and the computer, the software and the tools within are absolutely comparable to the wood and the saw, or paper and pen. I also use the computer to prepare sketches for the special settings or details of the works, but I definitely enjoy more the process of creating the work within an actual space or context. And I really love to play with how the motifs change their character within different media.

So concerning the production process, the combination of the digital and the physical is good for me, since I am bored by computer work and know it is bad for the eyes, and back. Whether it is good or bad for the work remains to be seen, I guess. For the time being, it still makes sense to me.

PU: When you erase the background of a composition, the space and time remain abstract. So, the figures are removed from their context and placed in generic settings. Are the ideas of the generic and the specific a concern for you? If not, can you briefly describe the setting of your compositions?

SS: As you mention yourself, I take my motifs out of their existing context and mix them up within the setting of my works. This creates other possible narratives. In this way, you get the chance to test the protagonists under different signs or within different contexts. So, it is not a totally generic world, but it opens up the possibility for other points of view or other versions of the story.

PU: There are a few motifs, that I have followed in your work: the monochromic surfaces, images flattened against the surface, and figures that are simplified solely to contours. All these remind me of comic books or children’s books. Are they the starting point?

SS: No, they are the actually the end-point, since I start my work with specific images from different sources: found footage from private albums, magazines, postcards or pictures that I take myself. What the motifs have in common is their iconic character. Flattened against their surface by outline and colors, they all function as representatives for more of their kind or for the story behind, which is very diffuse, if there is one at all.

PU: Some figures recur in different compositions made in different mediums. Is this a significant feature of your work? Does it work like a thread for the spectator?

SS: It is indeed an issue that I like a lot, since the meaning and the stories change immensely within the different contexts. This comes with mixing up all the motifs from very different backgrounds. I am constantly collecting images from very diverse sources, and one of the main issues I am interested in is experimenting with them in different combinations. That could be within a single drawing, which digital media allows me to do, or as a combination of two or more images.

The question that remains at the end is whether the single protagonists or motifs gain different weight or a different meaning within the combinations. It’s all about creating possible narratives.

PU: Your answer reminds me of an experiment by Lev Kuleshov, a film director and theoretician of montage. In the 1920s he juxtaposed an isolated shot of an actor with shots of other isolated images. In his experiment, the context shaped the meaning, and in different contexts, the same shot was totally transformed. He figured out that the juxtaposition of independent structures within the larger structure creates new meanings, which I find very close to what you are saying.

In 2004, you received a scholarship from German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, and went to live in Lebanon for a year or so. What was the outcome of this residency and in what ways did the experience affect you?

SS: My time in Beirut was a very important experience since I had just left the university. After six years in Karlsruhe, I really needed to travel faraway. I went to Lebanon with the idea of using the archive of the Arab Image Foundation for some semi-serious formal research. I wanted to find out whether there were formal aspects that would make an image look specifically “oriental” or “western,” since at the end of my studies, I was constantly faced with this discussion with my peers and professors. Everything I did was connected to my Iranian background, regardless of the fact that I have spent most of my life in Germany. But the more time I spent in Beirut the clearer it became that reacting to this reception of my work would only push me further into questions about cultural identity, biography and ethnic issues, which have little interest for me within my work. At this point, I started to mix up all the different images that I could find, from different cultural and geographic backgrounds and from different times and sources. To do this, it was really good to be in a place that was totally new and unknown to me.

The work I did during that time was called Oh, no, no…—The Crystal Series. It was a series of 40 drawings, four cut-outs and five pyramids that were first shown in a solo show at the Kunstverein in Karlsruhe two weeks after I came back from Beirut.

PU: In Oh, no, no…— The Crystal Series there is a strong influence of surrealist paintings. Was the surrealist influence temporary? Which other sources, movements or artists have most influenced you?

SS: I found a book about De Chirico and the beginning of the surrealist movement in the tiny library of the Goethe Institute in Beirut. For some reason this book accompanied me throughout the whole year I spent in Beirut. Bringing together my different protagonists in an artificial, stage-like situation was my way of finding the different associations that the single motifs could evoke in the different combinations. And for this it was great to be able to connect to painters like Bocklin and DeChirico. One of my subsequent works was called The secret of atmospheric pictures. I kept referring to the surrealists, using them in the same way that I was and still am using cultural and geographical references and icons and playing around with them in different settings.

But moving on to the formal aspects of my work, it’s obvious that the flat and comic-like surfaces, colors and compositions are influenced by pop-art. Most of the artists I adore come from Los Angeles. After having spent time in Europe, Iran, Lebanon and Egypt, I have to say that I really feel the urge to go to the far West, specifically to LA for a while and find out more about these sources.

PU: You were recently invited to take part in a conference at ARCO Art Fair that was structured as a court case. The participants included Anton Vidokle, Tirdad Zolghadr, Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun among others. What was your role?

SS: Tirdad and Anton had come up with the idea that they would be accused by the court, consisting of a jury they had chosen themselves, of co-opting with the bourgeoisie. Along with Fia Backstrom and Dirk Herzog, I was summoned as a witness for the prosecution, led by a strict Chus Martinez and Vasif Kortun. We were surrounded by an impressive bunch of big shot curators, all well trained in the art of debate. I felt more like the random artist, invited to decorate the show. But at the end of day it was a good experience for all of us.

PU: What’s next for you?

SS: My next shows will most probably be a solo show in Santa Barbara this coming February, and a group show with Eve Tremblay and Mai Hofstad-Gunnes at Program in Berlin in April.

PU: Good luck with your projects!