Short Takes

    East Coast Europe
    Edited by Markus Miessen
    Sternberg Press, 2008

    East Coast Europe opens with a quote from Dr. Saad Bashir Eskander, the director general of the Iraqi National Archive: “Europe represents a tangible paradox: it unites us as much as it divides us. The Middle East has been ‘Europeanized’ and Europe has been similarly ‘Middle Easternized.’” It’s these paradoxes and attendant ambiguities that make this little book a timely and interesting one — for Europe, after all, is a space in flux, constantly in the midst of defining what it is, as much as what it is not. Where does Europe’s eastern border fall, anyway? When does geography become psychology? Why does the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina boast a life-size statue of Bruce Lee (paid for by the German government, no less)? East Coast Europe tackles these questions and more, as one piece of a long-term project that started in the spring of 2008. Here, polymath cum editor Markus Miessen compiles conversations (HUO-style — he even blurbs the back!) with the likes of Marina Abramovic, Zdenka Badovinac, Sislej Xhafa, Taryn Simon, and even our own Lisa Farjam. Finally, East Coast Europe is printed as a handsome paperback, which makes it all the more worth your dime.

    Prishtina is Everywhere
    By Kai Vöckler
    Archis Interventions, 2008

    Lending a microscope to postwar Kosovo’s capital Prishtina, Kai Vöckler, along with Archis Interventions, identifies a phenomenon they refer to as “opportunistic urbanization.” Prishtina Is Everywhere is divided into three parts: a diagnostic investigation, prescriptive projects originating in workshops held by the Archis Foundation, and a concluding essay focusing on the problems of urban development without governance. The schematics are designed so that the crisis of Kosovo, post-1999, could be applied to the experience of any postwar country. Vöckler identifies the forces that propel “turbo urbanism” into the crisis seen in Prishtina repatriated refugees and employees of international organizations (Kosovo Force troops and United Nations workers) doubling the population and causing a grand-scale housing shortage. The solution to such a problem may seem an obvious one: build! Family members who fled the war send remittances to their families back home, funding this fast-paced urbanization. The discussion of turbo urbanism is divided into starkly defined sections, each complete with its own set of elaborate diagrams and photographs. Prishtina Is Everywhere is the first in a series analyzing urbanization in postwar countries.

    The Book of Stamps
    Edited by Jeffrey Kastner and Sina Najafi
    Cabinet Books, 2008

    Since their introduction in England in 1840, stamps have been the most heavily circulated images in the world, with governments issuing portraits of everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Colonel Sanders, Stalin to Mickey Mouse. A century after the adoption of stamps, artists began succumbing to “the subversive appeal of creating an unofficial version of a recognizable emblem of the state,” write the editors of this collection of artist-stamp projects assembled by the publishing wing of Cabinet magazine. Stamps had already been used to transmit hidden messages during wartime, and artists like Yves Klein (who produced an International Klein Blue stamp, which contained no data and indicated no value) and Robert Watts (who created stamps for the Fluxus movement) saw them as opportunities to intervene in a state-controlled system of representation.   Drawing on this tradition, but recognizing the distance the internet has put between us and those thumb-sized collectibles, the fifteen projects in The Book of Stamps use the format as a canvas to explore issues of national identity, territorial dispute, global exchange, and portraiture. Palestinian-American artist Emily Jacir plays on the US government’s stamps “honoring” Native American leaders in her issue of Palestinian icons and “folk traditions.” Photographer Walead Beshty maps out the ruined Iraqi embassy in East Berlin — “a symbol of a former regime in a country that itself no longer exists.” Perhaps most germane is the project by Swedish artists Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren, whose issue celebrates the fifteenth anniversary of the imaginary Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland, consisting of the border regions between all countries on earth.

    Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen
    By Lisa Wedeen
    University of Chicago Press, 2008

    In 1999, Yemen held its first democratic elections, delivering ninety-one percent of the vote and the presidency to Ali Abd Allah Salih, who had been the president of Yemen since unification in 1990 and of North Yemen for twelve years prior. By 2001, Salih was making plans for his son to succeed him in office. When asked by a reporter how he could justify such a position, Wedeen writes, he said that he was simply following the American model. Bill Clinton, he explained, was simply a muhallil, or “legal facilitator” — Islamic law dictates that if a divorced woman wants to remarry her ex-husband she must first marry a muhallil, an “interim husband who makes possible the return of the actual one.” He eventually reconsidered his approach, and won his reelection in 2006 with seventy-seven percent of the vote.

    As its democracy has slipped into the rhetorical ether, the Yemeni state has faltered. Weaving together anthropological fieldwork, political analysis, and reportage, Wedeen argues that nationalism and democracy have failed to deliver any tangible benefits to the population; as a result, people have directed their desire for identity and community elsewhere, creating “other publics.” While this may seem like stultifying dissertation fodder, Wedeen’s attention to how politics is played out in dining halls and tearooms, her attunement to the way in which people filter conceptual structures through their daily lives, animates the material. An exemplary section of the book deconstructs the communal chewing of qat, a ubiquitous plant that supplies an amphetamine-like kick, producing mild euphoria and diminishing hunger. If electoral politics and a unified state have failed to provide Yemenis with a greater identity, qat-chews and the hours of conversation they engender offer an alternative understanding of “the substance of democratic practices” — or at least a good buzz.

    Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema
    By Negar Mottahedeh
    Duke University Press, 2008

    There is precious little writing in English on Iranian cinema, outside of the work of Hamid Dabashi, whose 2001 book Close Up: Iranian Cinema Past, Present and Future is a touchstone. That book was foundational, with probing essays on the Iranian New Wave; the effort to develop a national cinema after the 1979 revolution; the country’s signature auteurs, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf; and the “perils and promises” of the festival circuit, which have both bolstered and deracinated Iranian cinema.

    Mottahedeh’s book is a leap forward: foregoing general history and cheerleading, she presents a sober reading of post-revolutionary Iranian film, which she considers to be a sort of apotheosis of 1970s theories of the feminist gaze, thanks in part to the Islamic regime assuming a male spectator and proscribing voyeurism. The irony here is as acute as her argument is elegant. She deliberately, pointedly tracks the development of Iranian cinema and locates the kernel of its current state — Khomeini’s consideration of the nation’s “state of self-estrangement” in his last will and testament, due in part to what some would call “Westoxification.”

    The state went on to encourage, and financially support, a cinema that produced a spectator severed from Western ways of looking. Kiarostami (the king of “philosophical long shots”) and Makhmalbaf (a maker of “commercial art films”) have since transported this cinema to the festival circuit, and their creations have begun to resemble “global” or “third world” film more than anything else. But, as Mottahedeh writes, “if color is what Iranian films are celebrated for, then so be it.” Color is not just a characteristic, but a strategy that undermines the typical Western cinematic discourse, which relies “on the conventions of realism as a coefficient of cultural truth.” It is refreshing to hear an actual argument about Iranian cinema, rather than an appeal that we pay attention. Mottahedeh’s book is not boosterism, but critical history of the enthusiastic variety.

    Transit Tehran: Young Iran and Its Inspirations
    Edited by Malu Halasa & Maziar Bahari
    Garnet Publishing, 2008

    Rare is the (English-language) book about Iranian art, film, or literature that does not, to some extent, position itself as a corrective to Western perceptions of the country. I imagine cartloads of these books piling up in the mailrooms of the secretary of state and the National Security Agency, their covers all issuing some version of the sentiment expressed in this quote from an anonymous contributor to Transit Tehran, included in the book’s introduction: “Iran is moving from something like a traditional society to something resembling a modern one!”

    But here, that antiquated assertion is, thankfully, made superfluous by a wealth of stories, photographs, and essays reflecting on life in Tehran. One series of photographs with accompanying essay describes the creation of female police units. Upon graduating from the Law Enforcement Force Academy, one class was told by the police chief, “You’re the police, but you shouldn’t lose your maternal instincts and commit violent acts.” Then they were sent off, chadors, pistols, and all, on Special Guidance Patrols targeting women dressed inappropriately in public. Elsewhere, in an endearing, if overly earnest, memoir, a Tehrani rapper boasts of keeping a house party “going straight through the night,” pausing only for morning prayer.

    Though the book spills too much ink reiterating the fact that life in Tehran is highly “paradoxical” — See, we’re a lot like you, but also not! — those tired assurances are eclipsed by the acuity and candor of the work as a whole, which shows the “paradox” to be a simplification of life in a place that, like all cities, can’t be characterized as belonging to one distinct or discrete culture or history.

    White House Redux
    Storefront for Art and Architecture
    Control Group, 2008

    In January 2008, Storefront, the art and architecture organization based in New York, sent out an open call for ideas: “What would the White House look like if it were to be designed today?” In the excitement of the forthcoming US presidential election, 487 projects were submitted from 42 countries. As an opening page of statistics reveals, the most popular option was for the White House to be rebuilt as a tower (31 proposals), while others opted for a gigantic media screen (23), painting it black, making it part of a network, taking it into the air or onto the water, and so on. The White House, writes Storefront director Joseph Grima, is “a complex, polyhedric and formidable… house above all houses”; rather than facilitating an entertaining diversion, Grima and company hoped the competition would “act as a trapdoor to a deeper reading of our surroundings, a way of questioning and re-evaluating the physical and cultural landscape.” A lengthy photo essay of the judging process by Marty Hyers sets the scene, followed by the projects themselves, including winners JP Maruszczak, Roger Connah and Ryan Manning’s Revenge of the Lawn, a surreal mix of texts, photos, animations, and architecture. This sets the tone: White House Redux is a glorious mix of architectural drawings, cartoons, photography, and earnest texts. A block of a book, printed on newsprint-style paper, and akin in weight to a public phone book, it’s good for dipping in and out of.