Iranian-American Tackles Big Brother with Performance Art

Amy Khoshbin, Gold Lady: Terror Level Five, Eyes Open, Photo by Corbin Ordel

Advocacy, coupled with an interrogation of her cultural heritage, is at the soul of Persian-American artist Amy Khoshbin's video and performance art. She’s currently in residence at Mana Contemporary, as part of Mana BSMT, the museum’s collaborative hub supporting emerging artists, where her performative installation The Myth of Layla is on view through November 12.

The artist grew up hearing stories of Iran from her dad that today sound like fairytales. In his youth, the country was a bohemian idyll. “When my dad was living there, it was like Paris. There were artists going there all the time. Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, and all these people... It was a really cool time to be in Iran,” Khoshbin tells The Creators Project.

Photo by Penn Eastburn. Courtesy the artist

But by mid-century, Iran was barreling towards an ultimately authoritarian religious regime, partly instigated by a CIA-backed coup in 1953, which led to the Iranian revolution in 1979.  Fearing for his safety, Khoshbin’s father fled to the United States. He’s never been back.

“The story of my dad’s immigration to the US always stuck with me, I think, because being here and being Middle Eastern, you see how right now in American culture [...] we’re in a time when the Middle Easterner is a terrorist,” Khoshbin says. “If you say terrorist, you’re pretty much talking about the Middle Easterner. So hearing that, growing up and especially right now, that was always a part of my wanting to be an activist.”

Photo by Penn Eastburn. Courtesy the artist

The protagonist of Khoshbin’s new work is Layla, an idealistic Iranian-American activist living in a sci-fi, not-too-distant future ravaged by simultaneous energy and refugee crises. In this world, a big-brother media conglomerate called The Network has taken over the US government and is at war with a fictionalized Middle Eastern country akin to Iran. When Layla posts a viral video protesting the slaughter of refugees by government drones, The Network capitalizes on her fame by creating a reality show called Activists in Sexy Solidarity (ASS) and roping in Layla as a contestant.

“This project, to me, is weirdly happening at this very specific moment. We’re heading into the presidential election, and this world that I’ve built parallels the fact that, ok, there may be a time in the very near future where a reality show host is our president,” Khoshbin says. “He’s saying fucked up, misogynist things all the time. People are disgusted but also kind of eating it up.”

Video still from Amy Khoshbin, The Myth of Layla, 2014

It’s satire, but The Myth of Layla mirrors a lot of the ethical ambiguities of real-life politics. A taping of ASS, the narrative framework for the piece, is frequently interrupted by commercials, like one for an extermination service offering to rid citizens’ lawns of “pesky refugees,” and terror alerts from The Network instructing civilians to adopt ridiculous defensive postures. The video vignettes are meant to be campy and surreal, but the fact that their messages theoretically resonate with non-fictional Americans is unsettling.

A commercial used in the piece, courtesy of the artist

Most Americans’ grasp of Middle Eastern history and politics is tenuous at best, and Khoshbin cites economic sanctions against Iran as one example of US policy heralded as peaceful but which ravaged the region. “The thing about sanctions is that you’re affecting the whole economy: old people who need their medication, women and children. That’s not the type of diplomacy we should be saying is ‘working across the board,’” she says. “That is so confusing to the American public. They think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great diplomacy because it’s not war.’ But it’s just as insidious.”

Khoshbin creates a dramatic parallel universe in The Myth of Layla that echoes our own, vividly demonstrating the dangers of media control and the necessity of questioning the content we consume. Three live performances of the piece took place at Mana Contemporary earlier this fall, but a video installation, created from footage taped during those performances, is on view in the Mana BSMT space through November 12.

A commercial used in the piece, courtesy of the artist

To learn more about The Myth of Layla, click here. Follow Amy Khoshbin on Instagram.

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