For the first iteration of “Art on the Internet,” Kajal features the video and text-based work of Iranian writer, interdisciplinary artist, and translator, Gelare Khoshgozaran. The Los Angeles-based artist allows visitors to her website open access to a sizable archive of both visual and textual works that confront a variety of problematics related to the relationship of space, movement, marginal identities, and history.
I tried to choose just one piece to feature but found that the combined narrative of a video work, mm/dd/yyyy, and the text-based performance, UNdocumentary, present an incredibly poignant reflection on the dehumanized process of seeking asylum in America. The first piece, mm/dd/yyyy (2015), is a soundless video. Text written in Times New Roman flashes across the screen non-hierarchically except for the varied rhythm in which new text appears. The text frames are fragments from U.S. Immigration Forms I-589 Application for Asylum and I-485 Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.
Because there is no sound, the text is foregrounded. At a little over thirteen minutes long, the video requires a certain patience. Each word is privileged; given time to sit on the screen before proceeding. In slowing our reading of the text, the artist lends a surprising sense of poetry to the bureaucracy of the rote questions.
The video begins, “Have you EVER/ within the past 10 years/ been a prostitute.” Each slash marks the flash of a new frame. Questions are fragmented, left incomplete, offered without context, asked out of order. The audience is given the sense that the survey goes nowhere, that our answers are just as insignificant as asking the whole question. What comes through is that the questions are narrow attempts at establishing an identity based on a variety of criteria, the first being criminality based on a respondent’s history perpetrating physical or sexual violence or limiting religious expression. There is a certain irony when one considers how this country might answer if the questions they were posed in reverse.
The latter third of the video points to questions about the political situation the asylum seeker is trying to leave, “the country / where you fear / persecution.” The moments focused on “persecution” are immediately contrasted with the banality of quotidian questions: “List your present employment first.” There is no sense of hierarchy, no clue that one question reveals more about one’s need for asylum than the other. After listing one’s employers, a person can proceed to “provide documentation” of the “mistreatment” or “harm” they face in the country they are fleeing.
The video points to the collapse of values implicit in the inquiries posed by these documents. What does it mean to reduce a person’s story to a Yes or No question? How is a person distanced from their history and subjective experience via the black-and-white text of a form? What do the questions asked say about the interrogator? How much can they tell us about the respondent? Khoshgazaran points to the sterilization of trauma through this method of questioning, reminding us of the incomplete portrait these formulated interrogations ultimately create.
Those questions begin to be answered in UNdocumentary (2017). The written work was first performed at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, but the text stands on its own. It is a declaration of self written in 30-points. Like any form, it begins by announcing the name of its respondent: Seyedeh Gelare Khoshgazaran Haghighi. But in this document there is also space for the respondent to ground that name in history; to go on to contextualize their date of birth within the Persian year and their place of birth in “the middle of a deadly war, Reagan’s presidency and the AIDS pandemic.”
UNdocumentary is the rejection of the sterilized form. It is a reminder that one set of questions cannot answer whether or not a person deserves or does not deserve asylum. Answering a question shown in mm/dd/yyyy, she asserts in point 16 “I speak fluent English” but we also learn at a different point that she read “Catcher in the Rye in Farsi … with ellipses throughout the book and gender-neutral, third person pronouns: who touched who in whose sleep when who was crashing on the couch at whose house? he/she/oo: shoe is my preferred gender pronoun” and for that fact we understand her relationship to the language far more deeply as it is complicated by her relationship to gender and sexuality.
If mm/dd/yyyy points to the senselessness of asking formulated questions to gauge an individual’s experience and character, UNdocumentary demonstrates the lived experience of a person whose story is limited to the answers they’ve given on that form. On point 27, the author writes: “I drive to Anaheim and take the exit before Disneyland to appear at my asylum interview at the USCIS office. My officer: my interrogator, fixated on the details of the teargas story or the story of being beaten by the riot police. Distressed as she is, I may need to comfort her. ‘No, it didn’t hit me. I dodged it.'” The episode is only discussed in this one point as it relates to the American officer who only cares about a certain aspect of the story, an interrogator who seems to ignore the other 29 points of identity in lieu of the set of assigned questions.
Khoshgazaran’s work points to the ongoing problems with an immigration system that reduces individuals and families to the stories they can communicate on forms. In a moment where citizens of this country and members of our communities have an ethical imperative to question that system and the processes inherent to it, the work holds even more poignancy, asserting the importance of individuality when immigrants are referred to in blanket terms – the “them” coming to take from “us.”
If you’re interested in Khoshgazaran’s work, I’d also recommend checking out contemptorary, a project in radical aesthetics cofounded by the artist and Eunsong Kim to support queer artists and artists of color.