This season we’ve partnered with the New Media Caucus, an international non-profit formed to promote the development and understanding of new media art. We’re interviewing five new media artists working today, both individually and at a live in-person event we held in February. This season of the podcast is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts grants for arts projects.
In an early podcast episode we struggled with a question of whether artists can make a social impact with their work, or whether their practices serves primarily in a role as a poetic or powerful symbolic action. More bluntly, can artists working with contemporary technology dismantle tools of oppression and injustice?
What is so powerful about Rashin’s work as an artist is that she’s addressing both of these areas at once. Her work is symbolic, but it’s also itself a form of social justice action. One way this happens is by bringing together communities of people, and specifically in A Father’s Lullaby, she’s bringing together incarcerated fathers, children, and others, not just to raise awareness of over-incarceration but also in a support process for the fathers she works with.
Rashin says her community co-creation process is inherent, essential to the work. And her choice of tools is intentional, both age-old processes of storytelling and singing as well as using latest-generation technology. She discusses using 360 video recording, volumetric video, and recordings of fathers singing lullabies to their childen - these recordings allow the fathers to see themselves reflected back, to exercise their own creativity, and to develop or deepen new forms of intimacy with their own children.
Rashin brings her own undergraduate students into the process, who work with the particpants of A Father’s Lullaby. She is presenting a model and process for social justice work through new media art and technology. They’ll be able to build off this work in transformative narrative storytelling, bringing their own vision and approaches in the years ahead.
image description: Rashin standing with crossed arms in dappled light in front of a wall of portraits of fathers.
Rashin Fahandej is an Iranian-American futurist, immersive storyteller, and cultural activist. Fahandej’s artistic initiatives are multiyear experimental laboratories for collective radical reimaginations of social systems, using counter-narratives of care and community co-creation to design equitable futures. Her projects center on marginalized voices and the role of media, technology, and public collaboration in generating emotional connections to drive social change.
This season of the podcast is produced with the New Media Caucus for New Rules: Conversations with New Media Artists. You can find out more by visiting www.newmediacaucus.org. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov.
Special thanks to Jessye McDowell, Rebecca Forstater and Nat Roe.
Our audio production is by Max Ludlow.
Our music on today’s episode is Koi-Discovery with the tracks Sick Of and Silk Rope, Meydän - Away, Anemoia - Relay and Kirk Osamayo (Ambient) Fight, from Free Music Archive.
You’re listening to Artists and Hackers, a podcast on art, code and community.
We talk to programmers, artists, educators and designers in an effort to critically look at online art making and the history of technology and the internet. We’re interested in where we’ve been and speculative ideas on the future. I’m Lee Tusman.
This season we’ve partnered with the New Media Caucus, an international non-profit formed to promote the development and understanding of new media art. We’ve interviewed 5 new media artists working today, both individually and at a live in-person event in February. This season of the podcast is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts grants for arts projects.
On today’s episode, I’m speaking with the artist Rashin Fahandej.
Rashin Fahandej is an Iranian-American futurist, immersive storyteller, and cultural activist. Her artistic initiatives are multiyear experimental laboratories for collective radical re-imaginations of social systems, using counter-narratives of care and community co-creation to design equitable futures. Her projects center on marginalized voices and the role of media, technology, and public collaboration in generating emotional connections to drive social change. A proponent of “Art as Ecosystem,” she defines her projects as “Poetic Cyber Movement for Social Justice,” where art mobilizes a plethora of voices by creating connections between public places and virtual spaces.
Rashin you are an artist that works very often in personal narratives but in a very experimental way. I’m curious what brought you from other practices like painting, or even just storytelling on its own to working with new forms of immersive and digital media?
I definitely feel that I carry all those sort of elements in the other practices and other forms of media that I’ve been working on the things that attracted me to those mediums. I do carry those elements with me in the emerging media for sure. So I think like the book, the poetry, and aesthetic and the tactility of my visuals. Even though they are projected on a flatter screen or if they are in the immersive space they do carry the poetry and tactility of painting for example. And I’m really much attracted and I do like to allure and bring the audience and witnesses and people into the space through the sensual and and embodiment and the way that your gaze and your body connects the visuals with the audio. I do definitely think about it much more sculpturally. So for me, the audio is an invisible sculpture in a way that that actually is very Intimate. It’s very bodily because it touches your body and it vibrates your body and that’s the way that you actually can hear the audio. So definitely I do think about all of these facilities that the mediums have and how it can carry and connect with you in an intimate and a personal way.
I’d love for you to give listeners a sense of your work and maybe we could start by you describing A Father’s Lullaby, which is a large, expansive and immersive work. It’s taken a number of different turns over the years and been exhibited in many places, like the Boston ICA. Can you maybe first start talking about what people see and hear in the experience and then go on to describe it a bit more?
A father’s lullaby is a multi-year research and practice and community co-creation initiative that basically interrogates racial bias and structural racism in the United States criminal justice system. The focus of the project is basically it highlights the role of men in raising children and makes visible the negative impact of their long term sentencing on children, women and lower-income communities. What I’ve been doing since 2015 and 2016 has been to collect lullabies and memories of childhood from fathers who have been incarcerated. Particularly I work with the federal prison system and people who have been incarcerated for a long period of time. Ten years, fifteen years, twenty years, thirty years absence from the life of their children and families and the entire community that they had.
Well when I first got sentenced I was sentence to 360 months, which is 30 years. My 28 year old son now, he was 7 years old. And twins, they were 45 days old. Now I’m just being released a few months ago. They’re 21 now.
Like something dissolves in water. Dissolves in water. Lullabies transcend. Silence.
The way that you experience the piece is generally the project is three layer of engagement. The first layer that you encounter in a book and in the form of a gallery or museum intervention, multichannel video and audio. When you come into the experience encounter is not to see the formerly incarcerated fathers. It’s actually, you don’t know who’s incarcerated and who’s not. There’s a range of people who have participated from probation officers to community members. So wherever the project goes is a call to the community to participate and connect with this really challenging social Justice issue to the space of intimacy and love and considering what that absence would look like in the presence of love in the experience of love and intimacy. So that’s the first encounter and the heart of the project is actually the touch panels. So we have created these panels that you sit down in front of them and you see a shadow of yourself in the the sort of mirroring image. And when you touch the panel as long as you’re holding the touch you can hear the voice of fathers who have been Incarcerated talking about their childhood memory. The love and trauma in their experience as a child. Most of them talk about their mothers and the experience of a mother who had to work many jobs and double jobs in order to just survive and keep them alive because mass incarcerations become quite intergenerational. Most of these fathers didn’t have their fathers around themselves and they talk about the moment that they had to leave their own children. And how is it for them when they come back and it’s definitely a flow between the the memories, again like of absence and a presence, and absence and presence, and that’s the heart of the deep witnessing. I call it a deep witnessing place, that it allows you to get this sort of very intimate narrative and the stories of the fathers that you can’t see them but you can hear them. And if you lose your touch you would lose the story and you have to like touch again in order for the narrative to continue. And then the third part is actually an online augmented reality or augmented audio soundscape that invites everybody to participate by sharing their own memories and their lullabies and become part of this larger poetic movement. I call it a poetic movement for social Justice.
Recorded audio of overlapping voices
Beneath a load of guilt and shame.
Shackled by a …
For those present mothers.
So the project exists in many other form of intervention and and particularly I’m very interested in public site and bringing the project to different places and neighborhoods as a way of engaging the community directly.
Can you say a little bit about how you came to be working on incarceration as such an important issue to you?
I came to this project in 2015 thinking about the space of violence. I am an immigrant in United States. I moved here a couple decades ago and since I’ve been here I’ve worked throughout my education I worked as an after school teacher. I was working with inner city youths working on multidisciplinary documentary, different form of art. And I was quite baffled, like I could not understand why all of these youths that I was working with were experiencing so much violence in their life. Like they were all coming with Rest In Peace pins on their hats and bags, and when we were talking about ideas to explore documentaries and topics they wanted to work on, police stop and freeze, and gang violence. All of that were so prominent in their life. And as somebody who moved to a democratic society, for me that was a big question. How is it that in a democratic society the young kids were growing up experiencing so much violence?
Earlier you said you won’t know if it’s art or not art and it stuck out to me for a second because I was curious if you could talk about the role of being an artist that’s working in social justice issues?
I think in reality I would have not been an artist, I would have not chose to be an artist if it was not the fact that I wanted to work on social justice issues. So I think I can definitely say I chose art because I wanted to address social justice issues through this lens of cultural advocacy and culture change. And I do see a great power, like I think change is not possible unless we could change the mind and the heart of large populations. And I do think art has the power that it could reach us in a very different way in a very different intimate connected way that allows us to see a different perception, to see a different point of view and connect to experiences that are not our experiences in an intimate way. So I think I do see that power and that’s why I chose to be an artist, and I solely work on social justice issues in my work even though the work is very poetic and is very aesthetic. And I use those devices because I think those are are like cultural advocacy tools. Those are the way that we can sort of penetrate these very solid strong walls of othering that exist in our world.
One of the assumptions that comes with working with immersive media and and new media in general is this assumption that it’s made fast and cheap or that we’re trying out these different prototypes of things that don’t work. But your work isn’t like that. You’re working on these projects for years and they unfold in very complex ways and I was curious if you could talk a little about what the process is like to work with emerging and newer technology when working on your pieces? What are maybe some new affordances that it gives you or limitations or both?
I am really interested in the discovery process and I do believe that these new technologies and new tools that we are developing are basically an extension of our bodies and our minds. So definitely each one of them, they would have unique affordances that allow us to expand beyond who we are and the limitations maybe that we have or the possibilities that they could have. For example with the touch panels that we created from scratch the idea was how is it possible to create this form of deep connection and intimacy through touch and through haptic storytelling. In the process of community you come and experience these stories and these memories through a collective way of witnessing each other, witnessing a story. So I think there is a complexity and layering that is happening there that is beautiful. I use more emerging media, for example 360 video, VR headset, or augmented reality. I use those tools more in my co-creation process. My process is 80% of my work so what you see is this sort of massive installation that they also take a lot of time and energy, they’re 20% of my work and my process is a generous space of democratizing the tools. I constantly think about what is my role and responsibility as a maker to disrupt the formal traditional power dynamic that exists in this space? How to use the intimacy and the power of creative process to create alternative communities that we can come together and work with tools and learn and be able to tell the stories that they generally are erased and invisible in our public life. I do think the novelty of these new tools and emerging media as well as the form of intimacy that they provide in the immersive space, this sort of form of intimate encounter that they create is a powerful tool that allows us to sort of move beyond a space of trauma and become much more speculative and imaginative while we’re working with the very hard difficult issues. And there is a form of collective healing that is happening in that space of co-creation. So it’s not only that it’s democratizing the technology not in the space of just experience but actually this space of creation. So for example I’ve been teaching this course for the past four years that I bring formerly incarcerated fathers, probation officers and multidisciplinary students together in the classroom for the entire semester. And they learn to work with 360 video alongside the students. They work with VR. They take the tools and they work with their own children. And they record their own film and they record their own voices and they work in post-production processes together in a very collective co-creation way. And it’s very empowering, it’s beautiful. And again the the technology affords a different form of witnessing and encountering their stories. There is a sense of presence versus sitting back and watching a screen. So it’s much more about entering each other as a space and encountering the stories in an intimate and embodied way that I think these tools afford afford us to do.
I wanted to ask a little about your process, since you’re working in social justice work, of how you work with community members. How do you find people that you’re working with? Or they find you? How do you come together, and what are things that you keep in mind when you’re working with people that are not coming from the same background as you, maybe for example, as an artist?
So I never go to the spaces in a cold not knowing way. I do always rely on the shoulders of those who have been working in the community for a longer period of time. That’s why the co-creation aspect of it becomes quite essential. And that’s how I sort of rely on a lot of healing processes, trauma-informed aspects of the work, and having a community. You know all all the social justice issues people who are in this space, they carry trauma, they carry lifetime challenges and so it’s quite quite important to almost have a community to go through this. So I want to acknowledge that that is not a singular way but there are a multiplicity of ways we can problem solve around it. And I do problem solve in different stages differently. So as an example, the course that I teach at Emerson College is a partnership with federal probation offices’ Nurturing Fathers program. And that means that the fathers who are coming into the classroom they are officers as well as formerly incarcerated fathers who are now on federal probation under supervision. They all go through this program that is around how to become a better father, how to be a nurturing father and acknowledging the the power of again like love and intimacy in the space of fatherhood. And as I mentioned many of these fathers, they didn’t have their own fathers around so for them how to be a father is a big question. And how to feel the gap of the experiences, the lost history that they never shared together when they were incarcerated. These are like very important aspects that they need to sort of process. And they do that processing together in a very intimate space. And then 360 video, the audio recording, the getting into a VR headset and creating these 3D paintings and environment becomes a tool for them to become speculative and become imaginative. And while they are still processing their trauma they’re able to be creative and again as you mentioned it’s not important that they are professionally artists. We all need avenues of creativity. We all need different forms of tools to process our feeling and our life and have mirrors to be able to reflect back at. And a lot of the fathers mention how these stories that they record seeing themselves in 360 video, seeing themselves in volumetric films and working through with their children along the way under the process how it becomes a mirror that they can reflect on and they can see themselves. And then a lot of them want to do these work again. They talk about how going through this process of creative work with their children allowed them a different form of intimacy, a different form of relationship to be built. And now they are engaged in their life in some other ways. One of the fathers was mentioning that now he’s going and coaching through their football games or through their soccer games. Because he found other ways that he can connect with their children that was maybe not imagined before or not explored before.
I wanted to ask a little about your work as a professor and what that process is like. I’d love to hear more.
In my higher education I am actually interested in facilitating a space for students to create this form of project. I do believe in that space of teaching and institutional work that we can impact the next generation and so in every project or every course that I create I really constantly think about that shift of mind, a new perspective that a student that I can offer the students in this space. And I think as institutions that we actually have the facility and we have the tools and we have resources. It’s so important to break the walls of the institutions. They are able to through discourses actually engage with real life and people’s experiences that the institutions don’t offer generally but also it allows to again like kind of work toward that democratizing. We should offer the tools to abide their community and not like open open up the walls basically so that example of the course that I’m teaching that is a co-creation cause it brings formerly incarcerated fathers for the entire semester with probation officers and allows a student to have this intimate relationship and cultivate this relationship and deep listening and and and this sort of experiment and working together with these with these tools.
Well thanks so much for speaking with me today. I really appreciate it.
Rashin Thank you so much Lee, it was great talking to you.
When I’m doing studio visits and interviews with artists, there’s often a moment where they reveal how they came to be working the way they do. Often, it’s a lifelong journey, from making art or playing a certain way, or being encouraged in childhood, or finding a camera unlocked something inside of them. Some artists talk about beauty, or finding joy, experimenting. Rashin said she was an artist to work on social justice. And I thought that was interesting. She’s choosing to work as an artist because she thinks it allows for great possibility. She spoke of the power of art to reach our minds, to connect us together, to see different cultural viewpoints and connections.
In one of the first episodes of this podcast, I struggled with a question of whether artists can make a social impact or whether it serves primarily as a symbolic action, a poetic and powerfully beautiful symbol, but I was wary that using the tools of an artist, and of an artist working with technology, would we be able to dismantle tools of oppression and injustice.
What I find powerful about Rashin’s work is that she’s addressing all of these at once. Her work is symbolic, but it’s also itself a form of social justice action. By bringing together communities of people, and specifically in A Father’s Lullaby she’s bringing together incarcerated fathers, children, and others, she says her community co-creation process is inherent, essential to the work.
I’m interested in how she described the technology she’s working with, with this community. On the one hand bringing people together in conversation, how I imagine she does with her community work, is the oldest form we can imagine. Conversation alone doesn’t need a particular contemporary technology. And I think I had a personal fear that bringing contemporary tools and technology into a group of marginalized folks could overwhelm their dialog. But her choice of tools is intentional, supportive of her work. She discussed using 360 video recording, and about how this allowed the fathers to see themselves reflected back, to exercise their own creativity, and to develop or deepen new forms of intimacy with their own children.
I appreciated what Rashin had to say about using these new or recent technologies, breaking through the walls of institutions, to support a democracy of voices. Why should professional artists alone have access to the latest technology to tell stories? Using these tools with the fathers and families she works with, they allow for a greater speculative imagination. While they are processing tramautic experience they can channel their creativity as a form of expression, and to process their own feelings.
I think most of all, I came away feeling very much in awe of her vision and process. It maps out a succesful model for working with community members on essential issues of societal justice, making an impact on individual and community levels, and definitively maps out one model for art as itself a form of social change. I’m excited by her work, by her ability to involve her own students, who will hopefully build on this model and go forth in their own way to do social justice work perhaps in their own art practice, perhaps something we’ll experience or learn about in years ahead.
Thanks to our guest on today’s program, Rashin Fahandej. My name is Lee Tusman. Our audio producer is Max Ludlow.
This season of the podcast is produced with the New Media Caucus for New Rules: Conversations with New Media Artists. You can find out more by visiting www.newmediacaucus.org/
This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov
Special thanks to Jessye McDowell, Rebecca Forstater and Nat Roe.
Excerpts from A Father’s Lullaby audio courtesy of Rashin, with audio production by Krista Dragomer and Christian Genry. Kevin Lockhart is the father’s voice we heard. A Father’s Lullaby was supported by the Mayor’s Boston AIR residency program and the MIT Open Documentary Lab.
Our music on today’s episode is Koi-Discovery with the tracks Sick Of and Silk Rose, Meydän - Away, Anemoia - Relay and Kirk Osamayo (Ambient) Fight.
You can find more episodes, full transcripts, music credits and links to find out about our guests and topics on our website artistsandhackers.org You can find us on instagram at artistandhackers, and on mastodon at artistsandhackers at post.lurk.org You can always write to us on our website. Please forward this or any of your favorite episodes to a friend. And be sure to leave us a review or feedback wherever you get your podcast.
Thanks for listening.