I thought I was dreaming when I first heard that a group of young artists drove a mobile exhibition through the streets of Tehran. I must have been naïve to think this sort of thing doesn’t happen in Iran. But there they were, two rickety open backed trucks, with permits and everything, sharing their work with the entire city. I started asking questions and found that public art projects and site specific work were happening all over the Middle East and actually being embraced. When did this happen? I tried to imagine my grandmother interacting with a series of ceramic dead dogs in the middle of a highway. My aunt passing by a woman wrapped in 100 meters of cheesecloth on her way to the supermarket. There are video installations in old garages, plays in abandoned churches, photography on the sides of buses. Forget the four walls of the white box; artists are placing their passion where people may have the chance to react a little differently.
A few weeks ago at lunch my friend Farhad Moshiri said “I’ve noticed that I can’t really see myself until I leave Iran and come back. The whole time I’m gone, I’m aware of what is happening, but it is only when I get back to Iran that I can process it.” This made me think — is contemporary art in the Middle East more readily received because it has been taken out its context?
The traditional forms of expression in the Middle East — painting, carpet weaving, calligraphy — have typically taken religion as their subject. For some years Contemporary art had been flourishing within a very small community; a group of artists creating work for a small audience who were invested in the same modes of artistic practice. However in the last few years the situation has changed dramatically. It seems that contemporary art is shifting out of its elitism. No longer for a dedicated group of gallery goers, contemporary art is now seen by passers by, commuters, bankers and engineers — anyone who’s normal life happens to overlap with this progressive form. As people who were not normally interested in art now become part of this open-minded, incredibly receptive audience the work begins to take on more meaning.
The landscape is changing; now institutional exhibitions are being outshined by smaller, independent productions. Young curators are being favored over the out of touch establishment and spontaneous art happenings preferred more than stuffy, formal functions. The Cairo Biennale, for example, was awash in the tired ideologies of identity and the “Role of the Arab” in today’s world — a theme that has been so overused that it has been pushed to the brink of irrelevance. Is this because Middle Easterners are tired of talking about who they are? No, it is because we are tired of other people telling us who we are. Instead of constantly being taken out of context by others, people are taking matters in to their own hands. From popular reality television shows like Arabic Big Brother to homegrown independent movies shot on DV, there is a whole movement of self-documentation.
In this, our first issue, we try to bring together some of the people who are bringing these projects to the public. We Are Spatial because we are bringing the private into public space; because we are redefining the boundaries between inside and outside. We Are Spatial because we are transforming the spaces in which we work and live. We Are Spatial because, although we are spread all across the world, we try, in some small way, to come together here.