Mistake House: In this world of busyness and hustle culture making a space for creative work has become increasingly difficult. How do you protect your studio time, and do you have any rules for yourself to keep your generative process on track?
Samira Yamin: I struggle very much in this area myself. I tend to fall into the trap of the three P’s – perfectionism, procrastination and paralysis – so my brain is constantly looking to attach itself to anxieties or distractions that perpetuate the cycle.
I’ve recently been experimenting with acceptance, though. Rather than judge myself for not having a consistent, disciplined relationship to the studio, I’m trying to harness the power of what does and doesn’t work for my particular brain. I use grant and residency applications as deadlines to give myself the opportunity to at least think about the work. If I can’t get myself to my own studio, I talk to friends about their work, or look at plants to see the shapes they making as they grow. Conversely, I look out for things that call out for my attention but produce only resentment in me. I’m no longer on any social media platforms, and I’m learning the extremely difficult skill of tolerating my own guilt over having to say no to some things. It’s not so much the studio I need to protect as my attention, my psyche, my self. I’m protecting the part of me that is curious, to make space for my brain to light up. I’m choosing to trust that the proximities to creative expression are accumulating somewhere, and that when they tip into consciousness I’ll be here to work through the questions.
MH: The pandemic has caused financial, emotional, and creative strain (although some people have thrived in the solitude, the remote work and in digital communities or platforms). Similarly, the pandemic has caused global food shortages and disparities in vaccine availability and care and have has heavily impacted refugee communities. What are your thoughts about the opportunities and/or disadvantages within dramatically changing cultural contexts? What type of work should the arts be doing address cultural anxiety (and perhaps ease it) and cultural disparities in such a time?
SY: While the last two years have been exceedingly challenging, the circumstances have only, at best, illuminated existing global disparities and injustices that oil the gears of capitalism and imperialism. Cultural anxiety is not, unfortunately, a new thing. I think what you’re asking here, though, is essentially: what is the role of the artist (of art) in society? My thoughts on this are ever changing, but generally getting broader, more abstract. The longer I’m an artist, the more mystifying I find the experience. Art is a mode of cultural production like the sciences, critical theory, news media or religion. Rather than “should,” I prefer to ask what can art do, what does it do, that is unique, and how do I employ and deploy that capacity in service to the subjects I confront, as well as the arts as a discipline?
For myself, the most generative capacity of the arts is in wondering aloud, in leaving thoughts and processes in varying stages of completion or disarray. As artists we are held to neither mastery, continuity nor rationality. We are not limited to the realm of possibility, but can, rather, expand it. We put things next to each other, or take them apart, to see what will happen. We do things wrong, ask “why” and play dumb if we already know the answers. We look at one thing through the lens of another. We ask, “what if…” What if we looked at these photos through carved glass? What if we “read” this magazine without the staples? And then attend to its unfolding.
So, what does art do about social anxiety? Art attends to it.
MH: We see a number of stigmas surrounding art’s relationship to war—from, among other things, people turning away from such artwork as too difficult or depressing to the image’s capacity to be used for ideological purposes. Others see art about war to be voyeuristic and sensational. Your work complicates such stigmas with its delicacy and symbolic patterning. It shrouds the difficult imagery as much as it draws attention to it. Could you speak to the ways in which your artworks, while complicating and shrouding images from mass media, make specific demands on the viewer to look unflinchingly at violent conflict?
SY: You’ve hit on some of the most common reactions to art that deals not only with war, but with pain, trauma, suffering, etc, but they reflect different ethical questions. The first, the impulse to turn away from emotionally distressing subjects, speaks to our expectations or desires from art and artists, a matter of appropriateness. Some might even call it “taste.” In any case, this response reflects not the work but what viewers bring to the experience of art, specifically, versus, say, reading a newspaper. (To be fair, people turn away from the news for the same reasons, which begs the question of broader cultural relationships to the suffering of others. The prevalence and market success of media representations of violence suggests it’s not so much violence but pain that offends.)
On the other hand, questions of ideological, voyeuristic and sensationalizing – essentially, exploitative – uses of pain and suffering are concerned with the use-value of representation. The implications here are that images do something, and that what they do matters. Now we’re in the realm of power, of power-dynamics (politics), and of responsibility. This is the foundational ethic of my practice, one where I engage in critical viewership and production at once. I make work in the act of viewership. I make work while, about, sitting deeply in my position as a consumer of representation.
Your use of the word “unflinching” is intriguing to me. I’ve made a note and left it on my desk to continue to think on. While I hope the work slows the viewer down, requires a type of attention not typically afforded news, I don’t think it demands an unflinching engagement. Flinching is a nervous-system response, not a rational one. I certainly flinch at images. There are times I don’t flinch that leave me disturbed and disappointed in myself. I’ve often wondered to what extent I’m desensitizing myself, or alternately the trauma I’ve accumulated in my body over the years. I’ve bookmarked a few images so as to not open them. I don’t look and they haunt me anyway. If anything, what I do in the studio is to consider the flinch itself. The work is about viewership in all its complexity. What I hope to do in the work is to create opportunities for critical engagement with images, whatever the subject matter. And if that engagement is flinching, I hope to have opened the necessary space for a viewer to allow that flinch into their consciousness, to consider what that flinch demands of us.
MH: In your article “The Art of Resistance” (Clamor; Toledo Issue. 31, (Mar/Apr 2005): 40), you mention Palestinian graffiti as a “simple act of reclamation.” Writing about your experience in the West Bank, you also said, “The horrors were more horrific and the oppression more oppressive than I could have ever imagined…Yet amidst the horror, oppression, and inhumanity, a vibrant, revolutionary poster and public art movement endures, with the explicit goal of bringing an end to the Israeli occupation of a people and the land they still call Palestine.” We see a connection between this example and your artwork All the Skies Over Syria. You have spoken [link to source inserted] about this piece being an act of re-seeing the skies of Syria not as the represented tone of war-torn gray skies but as the “infinite numbers of blues and grays” that do not align with a single represented tone. What labor must the viewer of art do to work towards this reclamation and re-seeing of a historically misrepresented subject?
SY: What I really appreciate about this question is that you’ve made viewership an active position. The work is in that activation, precisely. We often think of representation as coming after the subject. A bomb goes off, and then the photo is taken. Over the last few years, there has been a growing conversation about the consequences, and therefore the power, of representation, that it matters, it does something besides simply being a picture. We typically go backward from this assertion, questioning the producers of representation, rightfully. My practice asks: but what of the viewer? If images have power, so too does the viewer. The viewer receives, consumes, makes sense of, representation. This is necessarily a position of power, but only if it is activated. Media culture works very hard to maintain our passivity by making images easy to consume, accessible, abundant. Don’t you get up, we’ll come to you. As viewers we don’t have to be passive recipients of images, information, content. Representation is made in viewership. It is only potential energy until it is activated in the state of viewership, so what we bring to that act, as viewers, affects the representation just as much as the side of production.
Your critical engagement is yours, will come from, and be changed by, your experience. One place I start is by simply acknowledging that all representation is made, and for a purpose. From this basic starting point, we are activated, critically engaged viewers. Try this with a photojournalistic image of your choosing. Remember that every photograph contains within it an infinite universe that is not depicted but is just outside the frame. What we see inside the frame is the result of a series of decisions. If we step back farther, the photojournalist’s presence at an event is the result, too, of a decision based on what is deemed to be newsworthy by editorial staff of a news source, which is most likely a for-profit entity. Now, look back at the content of that photograph. Now what do you see? What questions need to be asked?
MH: You have mentioned using Time Magazine for your artwork because it shows a very American perspective on things. Your artwork is meant to contrast this American perspective by changing the images, but what particular audience (or audiences) is your artwork intended for? How does your artwork reach out to that audience?
SY: I think about audience in a few ways, at varying stages in the life of the work, but the particular audience isn’t an individual, it’s a mode. The work speaks to, intervenes on, an act: viewership, consumption, of representation.
As the first audience, I think about how to read from the magazine, from representation, the information that is indirectly communicated. With each decision, I read images in ways they’re not intended, through a productive engagement, and it’s in this shifting of attention that I move from reader to audience in the way you’re asking.
Another audience is the viewer of the work at large, which is a complex space to navigate, so I think about offering entry points to the work, to draw the viewer in, physically. As readers, viewers, of news, the world comes to us. If we think to the choreographies of how we consume the news, we tend to stay static while the images or information move. Either it’s a television program that is ever changing, a page we turn or a screen we scroll. So, my first intervention into the act of viewership is usually curiosity, typically followed by awe, surprise or disbelief. This draws the viewer in, and then holds them there, if even for a moment. The gleaning of “information,” or what the magazine intends to be read, and what a reader expects to find, is delayed if met at all. I also try to keep in mind that while I might make work with certain audiences in mind, I cannot limit the reception of the work to that audience. When the work leaves the studio, it is divorced from my intentions and language, and is therefore vulnerable to shifting contexts. I hold this abstract space and viewer in mind for the additional ethical attention it requires.
A third audience is the one I speak to directly in the form of artists talks. Because the work tends to require an embodied experience, is nearly impossible to articulate through documentation, I spend the bulk of these opportunities addressing my “findings,” the things I learn, personally, from the experience of making the work. This is where I talk about content very explicitly: the cannon of representation of the Middle East, the relationship of contemporary war photography to the Orientalist painting movement, the use-value of the cannon in reifying the colonial project, the consequences of representing a place exclusively through war. This is a direct address to a captive audience. How can I affect the way a future photojournalist, an art-lover, a painter, someone’s mother moves through the world? After twenty years of working with these images, what am I going to say to this room of people?
MH: In an alumni profile for UCI, Allyson Unzicker wrote that “Due to the optical nature of [Samira’s] most recent series Refractions, the work demands an in-person experience.” It seems to us that all of your artworks demand an in-person experience. In Refractions, the presence of a shadowbox and the placement of lights, images, and mirrors require that the viewer be engaged with what you call a “choreography” of viewing and moving the body to be able to see the works from all angles. Or, in the Geometries series with their hand cut magazine pages, no photographic reproduction can capture the subtleties of the fragmented, patterned, multilayered surfaces. How does the necessary somatic experience of your work undermine the glibness of image culture and invite the viewer to understand its activism?
SY: Sometimes when I get frustrated with the impossibility of documenting the work, especially the Refractions series, I joke that if one wants to make a practice of critiquing photography, they can’t expect photography to play along. But the truth is that the refusal of the work to be photographed is not only a result, but a function, of the critique itself. Representation is not, cannot be, the thing itself. It is necessarily different and serves a different purpose altogether, and with this difference comes a whole host of problems and opportunities. My practice turns on mining this discrepancy, with all its unmet expectations, emptied signifiers, displaced subjects. The work teases out the functions, mechanisms and consequences of representation by undermining or intervening on its use as visual information, its relationship to truth-telling.
Think, for instance, to the experience of seeing a photojournalistic image in the news source of your choice, in the medium of your choice. Perhaps it’s Lynsey Addario’s coverage of Ukraine in the New York Times on Instagram. We scroll. We see a photograph. Maybe we read a caption. We have learned something we didn’t know just moments ago. The shape of a face, the weather at the moment the photograph was taken. And then we scroll, again. Your body knows this experience well. You know the posture in your shoulders, and the speed at which your finger flicks the screen to make it appear and disappear. Maybe the sound of a nail tapping the glass. It’s the gesture, the sound, of “next.” The digital equivalent of turning a page.
What I see in this swipe is an insidious sort of trust, a taking for granted that the image, the information, we’ve just encountered can be taken as truth. It is in a format, from a source, we recognize and which does not challenge our assumptions. Even if it shocks or offends, it doesn’t do so in a manner that undermines the system and structure of the information and/or its dissemination. This is where I see the glibness you describe, and where the work enacts disruption, in the experience of viewership. The slowing of engagement isn’t for the benefit of achieving more information, but rather an opportunity to intervene on the process itself. To look differently, with a different choreography, by moving the body, by not easily having one’s expectations met. To be guided by what exactly am I looking at? And to have to walk away.
MH: Producing your artworks takes a long time. All the Skies Over Syria, for example, required six months of focused work. If it takes so long to produce specific works, how contemporary—how timely—is your artwork able to be? If a major change happens in the Middle East, how quickly are you able to turn news stories into artwork? Do you try to produce art about the present or do you wait months or years? Or, to put this question another way, does the world ever “lap” your work or how do artworks about social or political issues remain relevant over time?
SY: While the images I work with represent the Middle East, the subject of the work is the broader structural mechanisms of representation that construct the narrative of the Middle East as a place of perpetual war. This is to say that events that amount to major political change are being told through the same structural patterns. I’m more interested in how the story is told, looking for various places to throw a wrench in the spokes down the line, and this simply takes time. It requires moving things around and letting questions linger. Of the Geometries series, for instance, the suite of Fire works came about when I saw an image of an explosion in Kobani, Syria in 2014 and remembered a similar image from Baghdad, Iraq in 2003, which eventually became ten images where fire is centered in the frame, usually across the fold. It required not only the passage of time, but of my holding the image from 2003 somewhere in me until, eleven years later, another image revealed the pattern.
Additionally, I make work that is very time and labor-intensive. All the Skies Over Syria, for instance, took over four years from inception to completion, from collecting the images, sorting, cutting, rearranging and pasting the pieces. This is part of the process of my sitting deeply in my position as a critical viewer of images. It’s the antithesis of scrolling or turning a page: a split second slowed to years. And I get that time back from the viewer. The fact that all the work is handmade inspires awe, draws the viewer in, often in disbelief, and before they know it, they’ve spent more time with Syria than they expected, likely more than ever before.
The things I learn about the magazine in the process cannot be known another way, so it simply must be done this way. There are others among us who confront the day-to-day critiques, such as talking heads, activists, our social scientists and public artists, even twitter. I leave the current events in the very capable hands of those whose temperaments are better suited to it, and I give myself over to those things that can only be done in the arts, and very slowly at that.
MH: In an interview with the Kleefield Contemporary Art Museum, you said, “I want to be everything” and the artist’s role is the only place in which you get to do that. All your work is deeply involved with multifaceted perspectives and research from multiple fields. Your creative practice begs the question: when you are outside of the studio, what do you embody that allows you to approach the difficult issues of war so intentionally? What is your method of preparing, personally, for this work?
SY: Honestly, I find it’s the reverse, that the studio is where I work out my relationship to war, trauma, my personal and inherited history, so that I can be in the world with intentionality. The studio affords me time, space and especially privacy to work through some very messy, complex problems in ways that just can’t be done elsewhere, through making. It teaches me ways to be curious that I take out into the world, which in turn makes me a more present and deeply engaged viewer, reader, friend, colleague and stranger. It’s a nebulous and mystifying process, and I find that it can’t be forced. I just have to be available to it. Of course, it can be overwhelming and taxing, so in my day-to-day life I nurture the aspects of my temperament that light up my mind, that deepen my engagement with the world around me, and maintain that availability.
MH: In the same interview with the Kleefield Contemporary Art Museum, you explain your use of dynamic symmetry in your piece entitled September 21, 2015 – I. Your process of finding the symmetries between different fields and using those symmetric elements—from math, history, photography, and glasswork for example—gives your art a multidimensional perspective on war. Regarding the incredibly complex Syrian Civil War, how has looking through the lens of dynamic symmetry helped you to order or make sense of its volatility and its portrayal in the media?
SY: I appreciate hearing that the various modes and ways of thinking I bring to the work are evident and contribute to a more complex reading of the subject matter. I’d used dynamic symmetry in my work before, thinking about family photos, so it was already in my compositional vocabulary. Dynamic compositions keep the eye moving around the picture plane, so in both instances I was looking for ways to abstract or intervene on the image that would allow the viewer to stay with the work longer.
What I hadn’t anticipated was how easily and directly the construction aligned to the photographs compositionally. Dynamic symmetry was used historically in painting and architecture but hasn’t been taught widely in recent decades. Why, then, was I finding it operating so readily in contemporary photojournalism? In the case of September 21, 2015 – I, I found the edges of a raft aligned exactly to the two basic elements of dynamic symmetry: the diagonal and the reciprocal to a diagonal. Not only were are all the subjects of the photograph contained within these two lines, but the rest of the image is entirely black. I cannot know for certain whether the magazine’s layout designers use dynamic symmetry, or, more likely, if Western compositional legacies have been passed down and are now employed intuitively by designers. What I have gleaned from this exercise, however, is that the images operate on us compositionally in addition to content, that they do so easefully and unbeknownst to us as readers. And it’s this ease with which we receive images and information from the media that forecloses on criticality. I see the image, I understand something, I move on.
For the artist, this understanding points directly to an opportunity for intervention: how to make that which is supposed to be easefully gleaned require a different sort of work? In the Refractions series, the carvings enact a reversal of the way information is intended to be received. The areas that should be compositionally easiest to access are the most abstracted, require the most time and careful engagement. The secondary information is somewhat abstracted and the peripheries are left untouched, are readily accessible at a glance. Each frame contains a narrative within a setting, articulated compositionally.
In addition to intervening on the expectations of viewership, the compositional reversal also helped me to see the peripheries of the images for the first time. I began to see the other elements of the images that were treated as happenstance, blurred for effect or pushed to the edges of the image. I was able to see those things deemed unimportant to the narrative with these simple compositional decisions. The most striking instance of this, for me, is in February 2, 2012, where I saw, for the first time, the blurred palm of a hand approaching the camera as if to say do not photograph this woman’s pain. Of course, she, and her pain, were photographed, printed and disseminated. And I, too, despite this plea, have chosen to make further use of the image…
MH: You have also said that “giving yourself the opportunity to experience accidents is really a special and productive way to be in the world.” Do you think that accidents, or mistakes, are essential for the creation of art and the artistic process? Would your work be able to exist without these “accidental moments?”
SY: Finding value in mistakes and accidents is mainly a matter of attunement, of moving through the world guided by curiosity, keeping oneself willing and available to experience the tingle of both harmony and discord. My work has certainly benefitted from things just ending up next to one another in the studio, but it’s an age-old story: apples fell from trees for millennia before one fell in front of a mind willing to take notice, to ask why, how, and then to chase that impulse.
MH: We loved the article in the LA Times, “Soul Food with a Pinch of California,” about your partner, chef and visual artist, Ray Anthony Barrett. And we were delighted to find you mentioned as an influence in an article in Poets and Writers about your poet friend Solmaz Sharif. How do relationships within diverse communities and with artists from other disciplines deepen your own practice? How do you interact with other forms of art in your own life?
SY: Both my undergrad and graduate educations were in interdisciplinary art programs in public research institutions, which meant that I learned to engage with a range of media both within the arts and across disciplines. One of the wisdoms I drew from this experience was that anything can be considered from every possible lens, in that the table I’m sitting at right now can be taken up by a mathematician, a philosopher, a sculptor, a political scientist and a dancer and each will have interesting insights that will accumulate to a fraction of what this table is, does, means in this world. What I mean is that the world is an infinitely fascinating place, and to experience it through the lens of a poet or a chef or a nuclear physicist allows me to glimpse aspects of it that I wouldn’t know to look for, or toward. I love, too, that I get to take that experience, the glimpse, with me, registered somewhere, that I might catch a flicker of recognition elsewhere as a result. But most importantly, it’s the experience of sitting in curiosity, of considering the world through another lens, of hearing it articulated in another language that lights up my mind and maintains the expansiveness of the realm of possibility for me.
MH: When an artist finishes a body of work, there is usually a period of gestation or moving on to new forms and concepts. What is your current thought process? What new ideas are on your mind that you feel are important within the world: what are you paying attention to? And how do you decide which of your ideas to share? Are there any ideas right now that you would like more people to be thinking about?
SY: Because I take a long time conceptualizing and making the work, there’s usually a lot of overlap or parallel trains of thought going on at once. Most of my projects right now are ideas I started working with in 2013 that have split off into a few interrelated directions. That summer, my grandmother passed away in Iran and I found, in her things, a set of black and white negatives depicting my grandfather and his gymnastics students. My curiosity about these images only amplified the magnitude of her absence, that some things would now go unexplained or unaccounted for, that my relationship to my grandfather had been affected by her loss as well. In the same collection, I also found a small black and white negative of my grandparents standing near the shore of the Caspian Sea sometime in the 1960s, and which evoked conflicting emotions in me. The image of my grandmother in this moment of acute pain and loss felt like a betrayal. To put it simply, what I wanted was to be with, near, her, and the photograph felt hollow. By contrast, since I’d lost my grandfather when I was 13 and have few memories of him, I depend on photography to learn about him. For years I’d thought about the mediation of photography in the construction of political narratives, but to have these drastically different emotional responses to a single photograph illuminated for me the extent to which we, as viewers, mediate images on the level of reception, through entirely abstract means such as nostalgia, cultural knowledge, assumptions and fluctuating emotional states. Not only can two people have vastly different experiences of the same image, but in this case, I was having multiple experiences of a single image. Since then, I’ve made a few attempts at exploring this aspect of my personal engagement with images that are finally amounting to a fully realized project that I plan to exhibit in March 2023.
MH:Do you ever play hooky? If you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?
SY: You might’ve found in my answers many references to both criticality and curiosity, two modes of attention that light up my mind and are exceedingly productive for me. The dérive is where I practice and hone my curiosity, through presence to my surroundings and the development of non-rational interpretation skills. It’s also something I do for short periods, in any setting. I dérive in museums and in my neighborhood alike. Occasionally, when I’m leaving a place I’ve never been before, I won’t use a map or any guidance to get back home. Instead, I dérive, and have experienced many new parts of the city this way, though I’ve lived here for 35 years. I recently did this with a friend who was visiting, undermining the notion of how a visitor should experience or be shown a new city. We opted to be curious together, and to privilege the social bond that such an experience can forge. One of my favorite places to dérive is in thrift stores, where I can be guided by a random assortment of objects that I can also touch. If I’m at the library, I go to the call number for what I’m looking for, and then I dérive from there. I dérive in my own back yard, making rounds or zigzagging to see a plant or watch a bird, and even in my mind, allowing myself to daydream and go wherever it takes me.
The dérive is a state I both enjoy and rely on to experience richness in the world and in the studio, to be guided by those parts of myself that are ineffable and mystifying. With practice, I now move in and out of a dérive with fluidity, and can call up the mode of attention when I need my intuitive or emotional interpretation skills, my imagination or simply to relinquish a sort of control. It’s almost as if there is a knob that tunes my rational, critical mind, that I turn way down, so I can access other ways of knowing the world, similar to the wisdom that when one of the senses is inhibited, the others are amplified. To dérive is to amplify curiosity.