BriAnna Olson is an American artist who uses “Send Love to Iran” as an attempt to see the Islamic Republic of Iran through the eyes of a contemporary American artist. The project had its unlikely beginnings at the foot of the World Trade Center on the 5th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, when BriAnna stood with a sign that read “Unconditional Love is Global Security”. BriAnna recently went to Tehran with fellow multimedia artist, Michael Pope. They met with many artists, curators, and even clerics. Much of their experience was chronicled and transmitted live online, creating a place for themselves in the world of Citizen Media.
Below, is their video film from Mellat Park in northern Tehran:
BriAnna Olson shares her experiences with the project in an interview with Global Voices.
Q: Why did you chose “Send Love to Iran” as your project, and what does it mean?
The project began on what was essentially a dare – a stranger, an American woman, chastised me for holding a sign reading “Unconditional Love is Global Security”. It was the 5th anniversary of the September 11th attacks and I was standing silently at the foot of the World Trade Center site amongst protesters, mourners and passersby. This woman instantly pointed an angry finger at Iran, was citing World Wars and told me I should go there and “…see what love you feel over there”. Since this woman was a seemingly educated member of the American upper-middle class, I was fascinated by her thought process. For one, she had interpreted a philosophical statement as something offensive and had clearly taken it personally. For two, her immediate reference of Iran gave me the feeling she was a consumer of exclusively mainstream media. And for three, she behaved as if she knew more about Iran than I did, but I was convinced she'd never actually been there.
Also, let me say, I started out knowing very, very little about Iran. I'm very American, raised in a small Christian Protestant town and am half-Cuban / half-Caucasian. My school curriculum taught me nothing about the Middle East or Asian history so I really came into this project with almost a blank slate.
I decided that I would take the woman's advice and go to Iran, but that I'd make a project out of it and let the world keep tabs on my findings. I wanted an innocuous name for the project. Also, being an adamant believer in ‘you get what you give', I wanted to announce that my intentions were based in humanity and I was not going to go to Iran to “fix” anything.
Q: Iran has not been an easy place for Iranian artists. Recently a gallery was shut down, accused of exposing immoral photos. You met with Iranian artists and visited art galleries and a museum. How do Iranian artists express themselves and face challenges?
Yes, I just discussed this incident via email with a gallery owner from Tehran. I'm not condoning the government's actions, but the issue was that the gallery had not gone through a permit procedure – a technicality that is often overlooked, but the government clamped down on because they did not get to approve, and there were religious sayings on the artworks.
Generally, Iranian galleries police themselves – anything that might be deemed ‘immoral’ would be kept in the backroom and not on display. This generally keeps everyone happy. Some artwork is ‘for export only'… meaning it is shipped out of the country to places like Dubai or Istanbul for exhibition, or it's distributed online.
I think that there is more of an appreciation for private life in Tehran, for obvious reasons, and I do believe most artists do get to fully express themselves in private venues such as homes, private collections, or private galleries. That is of course, barring social taboos that might prevent any artist anywhere in the world from fully expressing themselves.
The real challenge is making that art visible to the public, which I believe is a crucial function of art and creative expression. The internet can provide a great venue and though the government has placed a number of blocks on various websites, there will always be people that can get around them. And there are many, many alternatives to YouTube and MySpace.
I think an interesting side-effect of government control is that it has forced Iranian artists to take their voices onto a global platform, which benefits everyone, really.
Q: You have a blog, Send my Love to Iran, where you publish photos and video clips. How do people (American and non-American) answer to your posts. Do Iranian artists use citizen media to express their ideas and expose their works?
Americans and non-Americans have responded differently to the project since its conception. Non-Americans usually showed no hesitation and would say something to the effect of “I'd love to go to Iran – I'm jealous” and American's responded with “Are you crazy? Why would you want to do that?”. The thought of traveling to Iran seems very threatening to many Americans (blame it on the whole “Death to America” thing). But since being back, I think many who've heard my story have softened their view of the country. We had a great big “Show & Tell” with a group of about 60 artists in Boston and after seeing many pictures and hearing many stories, everyone was very celebratory. It's as if we could only make a case that Iran ‘isn't so bad’ after returning safely.
All in all, I think people really appreciate the alternate information source and different perspective on Iran.
As for citizen media, LifeGoesoninTehran.com is a great photoblog by an Iranian artist living in Tehran. Really, another great perspective by someone that also lived in California for years. I think there should be more blogs like this, and possibly there are in Farsi (I don't speak Persian). I'd love it if there were more visible and consistent citizen media coming from Iranian artists, but I think there is still an element of paranoia and an avoidance of any kind of governmental attention.
Q: Many Westerners go to Iran and say that the country they visit is different than what Western media shows. Did you have same feeling? Do you think citizen media can fill the gap?
Yes, by the time we made it to our hotel it was clear that our impression of Iran was inaccurate. I think not only is there a Western bias, but also, the private nature of Iranian lifestyle is antithetical to ‘media broadcast'.
And, yes, I believe citizen media can fill the gap. If there were more of a willingness to share from the hearts and minds of Iranians, in simple blog or livejournal form, I believe someone might be able to curate and translate those thoughts for a more accurate portrait of modern Iran.