Yasi Alipour: on Home, Abstractions of Language, and Getting Away With Art
If you’ve met Yasi for more than 2 minutes, you know she can talk your ear off about politics and language. Beyond her more inward paper folding habits, Yasi’s art is most often interactive and having to do with language. I had this brilliant idea to make our interview collaborative. We would meet in Union Square with a cardboard sign reading “Ask me a question.” Strangers would come up and ask her provocative questions, and she would do what she does best: talk. We sat there, her folding, and me sharpy-ing on cardboard. She had just gotten a fresh haircut and was raving about the “hair god” that did it to her. We got one question from some teenagers offering us $5 Henna tattoos. We declined, but they politely asked, “what do you do?”. “What do I do? I’m an artist that also writes. And I fold paper. Which is what I’m doing now. I write about art and then I make art that is about other people writing. And then I fold in between. And it’s a lot of political stuff, but I think everything is a lot of political stuff.”
We promptly left Union Square for a favorite sitting spot of Yasi’s, “just a few blocks away”. Ten blocks later, we arrive at her secret spot - a rusty old commercial loading dock behind an SVA building. She would sit here during undergrad with her headphones and her thoughts. We did get some questions through a story we posted on social media, and a friend joined us at the loading dock, and all together we asked Yasi some questions.
We ended our interview in an old dive bar, where we each had a beer and Yasi introduced us to her latest project, a deck of cards. Her deck is made of cut up rectangles of printer paper, each containing a story her friends’ families used to tell of the Iranian revolution. As is traditionally done in Iran with the writings of the poet Hafez, Yasi uses her deck as a form of divination - ask a question and pull a card to receive a guiding answer. Of course, through the entire interview Yasi is talking and folding, talking and folding.
What is your relationship with shadow and reverie?
[This question came from our instagram story. We had to look up the word to be sure… rɛv(ə)ri, noun, a state of being pleasantly lost in one's thoughts; a daydream]
I was on the subway and I saw an ad that said, “Get Paid to Daydream.” And I had an initial reaction, “oh cool!” But then I thought about how terrifying that is that there can be an economy around your dream. Your dreams have to become pragmatic, and then you have to dream better. Not even your daydreaming can skip work...
I always have my headphones, and I’ve always had my headphones. When I was 18 or 19, it was the first time I was commuting long distance on my own. My favorite thing to do was, in this really crowded square where too much was happening, I would have my headphones on, as always, and then I would close my eyes and try to continue walking. I couldn’t hear anything and I couldn’t see anything. You can’t really do it. You snap out of it after a couple of seconds. But in that short time, no one could get you, you were totally in your head and you could be anywhere.
In an odd way I still do it. I have my headphones on and can’t hear anything and I’m reading and walking, or folding and walking. So I think all of that kind of relates to shadows. It’s a form of daydreaming.
Is the folding an obsession as well as an art?
Definitely. I think it’s an obsession that got away with being art? You know when you’re in high school and you’re in a class, and you’re frustrated and really bored, and the only thing you can do is go somewhere else… through folding.
Was there some sign in your childhood that you’d be a paper folder one day?
My mom and my aunt would play with napkins as they talked, because they’re both anxious and fidgety. I can imagine my mom on the phone with a distant relative, performing as a proper housewife, even using a different voice, with her pen and the phone book, making repetitive doodles. I somehow like to think of the doodles as secret objections.
I know when I was in middle school I was obsessively folding. I was always making fans. I also really liked the mathematical drawings in our books. I wanted to do them perfectly, but I was really bad with rulers. I would get lost in my head along the way and it would all become messy. So I couldn’t draw it, but I got better at doing it without the pen and the ruler - with nothing but my hands and a piece of paper.
Folding is something I do when other things happen. It’ll start in the classroom and continue into the subway. The other day I was wondering, do I think about things when I’m folding? And then I was thinking, is the folding recording something? What is it recording?
Where is home for you and what does home mean to you?
Usually I get to not think about that. But I think home is Tehran. And I think more and more New York has grown on me. It’s the only other place I’ve lived. Especially now, home is where I feel like I need to be politically engaged.
And I think about home in terms of language. The other day for my job I was talking to this gallery owner. He came in and was talking nonstop and taking a lot of space. He was giving me advice on life stuff, and it was just a total power thing. At one point when I didn’t know some saying he was referencing, he said, how can you not know this saying? I was like, I’m a foreigner, I don’t know the saying and I don’t feel bad about it. In Farsi, I probably would have felt bad about it, but I would be confident about the language in general. And… I think that’s home.
I’m fairly fluent in English, but sometimes I cannot pronounce words. I was thinking about teaching and what happens when I can’t pronounce a word. So much of your experience as a foreigner is to buy yourself time with language. Like I don’t know what you’re saying, but hopefully you’ll continue talking, and hopefully it will stop mattering, or I’ll catch up?
Wouldn’t it be empowering for you as a teacher to admit not knowing something, and ask for help from the class?
The person that taught me English was this weird American woman that moved to Iran after the revolution. She fell in love with someone and then they left the USA right after the Revolution and returned to Iran to be part of this new chapter. But then nothing went as planned. We knew a couple people that did that, but they were totally hippies. Whoever you knew that was not Iranian and living in Iran after the revolution was a complete weirdo. I don’t know if it was a trick or if she was doing it to teach us things, but she would say I don’t speak Farsi, we have to speak English. And we learned a lot because of that. Especially in a country with such a history of dictatorship and authority, and this person was like, I don’t know shit!
I was rereading Audrey Lorde’s writing on anger yesterday. She was speaking in a white second wave feminist seminar and was talking about how her experiencing of race and gender at the same time is lost in people. But then she follows that by saying that there are things that she doesn’t get. Like, she has the money and privilege to come to these talks. It was so important that she recognized her own blind spots.
I’ve been very lucky. I have a Canadian passport that allows me to feel more comfortable about visa stuff. I’ve had the support to be able to be part of an MFA program. But I’m like, when did you stop watching the news about Iran every day? It makes me really anxious, and I have the privilege to disengage, more or less. It’s like I know the dollar is really bad and the economy is tanking and things are horrific, but I can switch the channel. So back to the question about what home is... that’s the other part of it, and it’s not as abstract as language. It’s very literal. So much of what I know about my fellow Farsi speakers are all on the other side of this. I’m the exception. Or I get away with thinking about it in the abstract.
What was your experience, during Columbia MFA open studios, on that very cold day, when you spent the evening in the courtyard inviting guests to play a round of Monopoly with you?
The idea of open studios, especially in the context of Columbia, irked me. It’s so hyped up like everything else in Grad school. A couple of weeks before, as part of Art In Odd Places, I set up a public game of Cold War Monopoly where the players were USA, Soviet Union, Britain, and France. The cards are distributed to echo the geopolitics of 1953, the year of the CIA Coup d’etat in Iran. And I played that with passersby for four hours. On the day of Open Studio, I knew I didn’t want to sit in my studio like a booth, waiting for my customers. So on that cold day, I got some blankets, made some tea, and made the same set up, across the studio building, in front of Columbia’s new messed up art center.
I loved that day because I ended up having so many deep and yet light political conversations with people. At one point someone asked me,”So how do you negotiate between the politics of this (pointing to the monopoly set) and the politics of being a student here (pointing to Columbia’s new buildings, aggressively gentrifying the neighborhood)?” We hadn’t even met for 10 minutes and we were already there at the core. I do constantly wonder what it means to make work about my frustration with history and its political consequences, while being affiliated - and being facilitated by - the problematics of an institution like Columbia University. It felt profound to have that experience on that day, in that space. Though it is all small secrets between me and my participants.
What draws you to interactive and performative works?
I think so much of my work is about questions and thoughts that I get hung up on. And as you know, I am a big fan of conversations. I really can’t imagine my work existing without the conversation. I keep thinking that so much of my making is influenced by my years as an undergrad in the University of Tehran. Hours and hours of skipping class, finding a corner on campus, sipping on tea, smoking one cigarette after another, and talking and talking and talking. And this was the only constant as we began school and our adult life by seeing the rise, fall, and destruction of the Green Movement. After all these years, I think about what remained of the movement that was suppressed. Like did it even happen, since they rewrote history? And did it even matter, since no one listened to us. And now each of us lives in a different corner of the world and I guess we no longer have those beautiful hopes for the future. We are mostly left with anxiety and frustration for now. And then I think, those conversations did happen, they were all that remained, they are the things that changed us, things that no government could take away from us, and things we have carried with us through all these years. So much of my artwork is a longing to make that happen again.
What is history and can you think of some foolproof way to rewrite it?
I don’t know what history is. I guess that’s why I keep going back to it. I keep wondering about the word “Counter History”, like “Counter Hegemony” and wonder if even someone like Gramsci thought countering such things are really possible. The world tends to be terrifyingly random, and human beings are such suckers for patterns, for control, for meanings. And then life goes on through it all. History is somewhere in there.
In your life, what has been lost in translation?
My apartment in Tehran. We used to call it 503, and it slowly became the hangout space. It was where we ended up at the end of the day, while everything was unraveling, coming to terms with the weird history we inherited, and seeing the future refusing our voice. I’ve never been able to explain all that was there. And that group of friends slowly dismantled over the years, so it’s all becoming more and more distant.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
My dream is to teach, make, write, both here and in Iran. I think my ideal situation is that I would spend half of my time in New York and half of my time in Iran. But then sometimes I think about things like, well would you stay there with homophobia? Would you let that influence your life? Wouldn’t you say, fuck it, I’m out? What are the boundaries you’re willing to put yourself in for that back and forth?
It’s an oppressive system that doesn’t really have clear borders, so you have to assume what the lines are. Today I was wondering if the title of the class I’m teaching at SVA will be a problem. It’s called New Hegemonics: Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Ethnicity in America. And I always imagine I’m stuck in the Tehran airport and the guy’s like, well what is that, and I’m like, uhhh, it’s about how problematic the history of the west is??
But the in and out is such a privilege. It’s like summer camp, like I wanna be there, but if there’s actual danger, I can be out.
Have you always had an awareness of that privilege? How has it changed over the years since you first came to New York?
I think I’ve always been aware of my privilege in a sense of class in Iran, especially since most of my background is in public education and a lot of my friends are second generation communists, so they will be in your face and remind you actively what your privilege is and what it means. It’s a weird situation. You’re born into this system that’s so different from anywhere else, in a time where everywhere else in the world is trying to become global, and you’re always the weirdo.
I was talking to my hair god yesterday, just rambling to her [haha], and I was like, is it ethical to stay in this country now? I really don’t know. It’s a very violent space, and I see it being violent to people in my community, and then I’m like, not me... yet. I’m comfortable now. I’m comfortable with the space. But it’s more than that.
[Yasi catches me up on some history]: So, ‘79 is the revolution, and then right after is the cultural revolution. The universities get closed. There’s power games, and then the Islamists take control of power, and then there’s 8 years of war, and they kill a lot of leftists. In ‘89 the Cold War ends. Communism ends. The Berlin Wall falls, the Soviet Union dismantles, Tiananmen Square happens, Khomeini dies and the Iran Iraq war ends.
We were born in this world that was like, “You guys don’t get it, a lot of shit happened!” In our case, our siblings used to tell us all the time, though they were only 3-5 years older, “you don’t get it, there were bombs!” And we were constantly like, “uh, can you explain?”
What would be your advice for young artists, either in New York or Tehran, trying to find their own way of living and believing?
Oh I thought I knew the answer to this. But I guess I keep changing my mind on this:
For NY: You are not alone in your socio-political angst! It is part of the structure to single you out and then claim that they are listening to your individual voice. I think it is important to remember that institutions are violent and community is all we have. There’s so much comradery that can be found if one refuses to see themselves as the only odd one. The world is literally filled with writers, thinkers, makers, friends, fellow subway riders that are going through all of it with us. They may each understand the situation from their own specific situation, but the general oppressive structure of power is the same. If you listen, you can find them. If nothing else, you’ll feel less lonely, less singled out, less crazy in your anger, less like you are the one in the wrong.
For Iranian kids: Make things, make more. It counts, what we do counts. Our playing around counts. It’s like that philosophical thought experiment, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Things that happen in Iran matter and are of significance, even if much of the world has missed it. I would advise kids in Iran to be so much less self conscious. Cause the weight of the imagined spectator’s gaze - who never really looked or cared - is paralyzing. I’m so excited about work in Iran.
And finally, Yasi breaks out her deck of stories and we take turns pulling a card. Yasi asks about the future of all the meaningful friendships she’s made in the past few years. The card she pulls tells her this story:
“Years have passed and my dad's first business venture has failed. Right after he started production, it became legal to import the electronic piece he was making, resulting in his bankruptcy. So much for entrepreneurship! They barely made it through, with all their debts. So now, he has just started a new job. Money is tight. However, they still have the old gang of friends, now mostly with young children. They spend the weekends fitting everyone in the crappy cars they have, driving to a sea shore cabin, and having fun with whatever they have: eating omelettes, drinking smuggled moonshine, smoking, and playing cards.”