Sofa Issues Winter 2023

Can We Have a Dance Party Here?

Diana Marcela Cuartas with Taravat Talepasand

Regardless of where you are, who you’re working for; if you’re working with yourself, or if you’re working with others. That’s the moment where a magic is happening. It’s about how we can talk about things so we can feel like we’re all sharing a safe space where we can speak freely without judgment.”

-Taravat Talepasand

I first met Taravat at the closing party of the Dream Girl exhibition by Sa’rah Melinda Sabino at One Grand Gallery, Portland, in October 2022. While dancing and sharing our excitement at how good the DJ was, I learned she was one of the new faculty at Portland State University School of Art. I started following her work and found myself delighted by its rebellious, vulnerable, and fun nature; a powerful combination very much needed in the academic landscape. 

Later on, she had a solo show in Minnesota where, among works from the last 17 years of her artistic career, she presented a video of herself dancing on public TV at age 10. Even as a little girl outside the art-world context, a captivating playfulness was present in her performance, embodying the same inquiries as her adult-life artistic work, as a masterpiece created in advance for future questions. In the PSU Art and Social Practice classroom, we call that “retroactive claiming.” The term, coined by Harrell Fletcher, the program founder, references the possibility of revisiting the past to claim elements of it as artworks. 

I reached out to Taravat, interested in hearing how she, as a studio practice artist, could relate to social practice terms. In the process, we ended up talking about the relationships between body expression, safe spaces, critical thinking, and how they arrive together on the dance floor.

Baba Karam dance by Taravat Talepasand. Still from the video. Image courtesy by the artist.

Diana Marcela Cuartas: I’m intrigued by a video you included in your current exhibit in Warsaw Gallery, where you appear dancing on public TV when you were a child. I would like to hear how you arrived at the idea of sharing it as an artwork.

Taravat Talepasand: That video of me dancing when I was ten years old on public access TV in Portland, at the time, was just embarrassing. I didn’t want to do it. I got coaxed by my mom, and she wanted me to do it because she wanted to show off to the Iranian community that I can dance. “Look at my daughter. She’s on TV!” It was definitely a place of narcissism and self-absorption, which is just part of Iranian culture—and other cultures can probably mirror that as well. But I knew at that time that it was something that was always going to be with me. I questioned myself, “What if people can see this any time, any day, at any moment that they want?” As if I knew this idea of the internet would be quickly unfolding in the future.

These videos came around 1990, and I found them on the internet around 2000. The Iranian station of that show uploaded all of their videos on their YouTube channel. It had like 60,000 views. Some people were like, “Isn’t this a weird dance? What is this?” But most people were like, “This is adorable,” or “Oh, she knows how to move.” For me, it was about realizing how I could turn something that I thought was kind of shameful into something that could be educational or informative, really grappling with a young Iranian American girl’s life in existence and identity. So I kept it; I knew there would be a time to share it. 

Diana: Are you familiar with the term “retroactive claiming”?

Taravat: Retroactive claiming? I know what retroactive means, and I know what claiming is.

Diana: Harrell Fletcher wrote a book compiling his thoughts on terms and topics related to social practice. It includes retroactive claiming, which says: “An artist can retroactively claim elements of the past as artworks. That could apply to both object-based things—like photographs or a garden—and experiences—like going on a walk or having a discussion. To formalize retroactively claiming as an artwork, an artist can reframe it by giving the object or experience (or even a thought) a title, date, location, description, and potentially documentation […]”

Taravat: I like the retroactively claiming! I think that I do a lot of that in my art practice. That is a terminology that I can absolutely use to describe my practice, my way of thinking, and where I’m getting my inspiration. My ideas come mostly from personal experience or experiences that I’ve heard of, read about, or had been shared with me and given consent to work with, but those are all things that happened in the past. Reclaiming them now and making them into art, in a way, makes them almost a relic because things that we keep in our memory or our journals are personal. Most of the time we don’t share it, or they get forgotten or lost when we leave this world. But when you do work, publish something, or make it as an object, when you share it publicly, that becomes something else. And it also grows out of what is personal or what you thought was more isolating.

Diana: How did you decide to include the video in your latest show?

Taravat: I thought the exhibition at Law Warschaw gallery in Macalester College, Minnesota, was the right place to do it because it surveys a lot of my paintings, drawings, sculptures, and installations over the last 15-plus years. I needed something fun, a good grounding reset because you’re seeing all these works that you can see as beautifully painted or made, but the narrative is very political or can be controversial, a thread of female empowerment and conversation about the oppression of women in the Middle East. I needed something like when you buy perfumes, and they give you a bowl of coffee beans to reset your senses. The video is the reset for the exhibition. It was a place for people to see, “Oh, well, this is really just coming from this girl. This is her. She’s lived with this culture for a long time”. I thought this video would be a place for people to calm their senses, smile, or have that feeling you sometimes get when you see a child do something cute or playful. That’s what the video is for in that exhibition.

Diana: You seem so joyful and graceful in your dance, I wouldn’t tell your mother had to push you to do it. How was the preparation for it? 

Taravat: There was a mixture of feelings when I was making that video. I was excited that people liked my dancing, and my mom was really proud. She was very, very excited for me, and as an Iranian girl, you get wound up into wanting to keep your parents happy. I understood at that age that assimilating into American culture was very hard for my parents as refugees. This was a place for them to be seen in a greater community and within the Iranian community that also existed in Portland. I did it more for her than for myself. I think this is one of the first moments I remember having a dissociative experience. I was like, “You don’t want to be here, but you’re here. Your mom is putting makeup on you; you’re wearing these ridiculous outfits; you’re going to dance to the music you’re so used to dancing to in private homes and parties. And now you’re very much in a public space.” So I left my body and danced my heart out the whole night, which turned into three videos.  

I particularly like the one with the hat. It’s called Baba Karam. Baba means father, and Karam is  a name given to a man. It’s supposed to be for men to dance only, but there are a lot of women that dance it too. I took on that challenge, and I knew in my body that there was some comfort in me wearing this non-feminized outfit; I wasn’t in a dress, I wasn’t in a skirt –I didn’t like those things as a child. It was the hat that really charged me. I was like, “Yes, I can play that part of a man or a boy,” knowing that I’m a girl and that my genetic makeup is feminine. That was the first moment that I got a challenge that stuck with me my entire life. My work is about these challenges, these roles that women are up to and are often told to play, and how we can erase those lines and boundaries as to what a woman should or should not look like, do or not do, say or not say.

Baba Karam dance by Taravat Talepasand. Stills from the video. Images courtesy by the artist.

Diana:  I read you have an artwork installed at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Peace in the Middle East, that fell from the ceiling, and you were hired to repair it. In the article, you mention that, while fixing it, you wanted to reimagine your intentions about the installation more collaboratively. I would like to hear more about that. From the social practice perspective, there is this idea of studio practice work being isolated, not really in a dialogue with the community. Can you share how you worked to pursue a collaborative approach with that specific piece?

Taravat: That piece was part of the Bay Area Now in 2018 at YBCA. It’s a bunch of neon signs that say peace in Farsi. I had made these neons in a previous exhibition, and they wanted to have them in the show. They installed it with a very fine type of wiring, and what was supposed to only be there for a year ended up being there for three years. Something happened when there was a big windstorm, and they fell. YBCA was very unhappy about it because they had lived with this neon piece for so long, and they reached out asking how to get it back. 

When I had to redesign this piece, the phrase that kept coming to my mind was, “You’re not alone in this. We can’t do this alone”. I wanted to seek a neon artist that was not necessarily Iranian or Middle Eastern but from a different community that could have a hand in this together. I picked the artist Ames at Rebel Neon in San Francisco, who goes by they/them and has fought for their human rights. It was important to me to have their hand bend this neon. Even though they say, “Oh, I’m just fabricating this,” to me, it is more “I sought you out. You are a part of this dialogue now”. 

I reached out to several of my Iranian artist friends, designers, filmmakers, and people not necessarily in the fine art world to hear how they could see this reimagined. I also spoke to a lot of the museum’s employees and staff members who had daily contact with the piece to learn how people felt about that installation. I reached out to various gender, race, and socio economic positions, people that were included in the museum and people that were not, and I came up with this other version, very similar to the original it’s the same colors and neon; but positioned to drop down lower, so it can be seen as you’re walking up the stairs. It took a larger space that it needed to take up. It says Peace in the Middle East, but it also gives respect to the sacred geometry that is a part of the art history of the Middle East and Morocco and Egypt. It’s something that wants to encompass it all and doesn’t want to isolate whether you’re Muslim or not, or you’re Shia or Sunni.

Peace in the Middle East, 2017/2022, installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2022. Photo courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photograph by Tommy Lau.

Diana: I was told since childhood that you shouldn’t talk about politics, but I like to imagine a world where you can talk about politics with your mom, your grandma, the neighbors, at the school, the museum… As an educator and first-generation immigrant, how do you cultivate the ground to start conversations to unveil taboos?

Taravat: My work is all about that. I’m pretty sure that students signing up for classes are smart enough to look up their professors. I would say 99% of the students that come into my classes know what they’re walking into. That the professor is a woman, a person of color, Iranian but also American, first generation, and can talk about this kind of displacement and constant negotiation of identity. And whether they can relate personally or not, students are intrigued and supportive of my work and know that they’re walking into these possible conversations in the classroom. So far, they enjoy the conversations that I am supporting. 

One of the many things I tell students is that I’m trying to create a safe space here. I want everybody to be able to share how they feel honestly and openly. Whether that means they want to leave the space or if they want to say, “I think that there is enough about this conversation.” I love that challenge; I would love to be a safe person and a mediator. 

We are constantly talking about what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in academia, what’s happening in the art world, and how we feel about it. I think it enables them to leave the classroom and have these conversations, go see work, attend a lecture, meet new people, and have an open mind. That is really the core of what I’m trying to promote.

Diana: What do you enjoy the most about teaching?

Taravat: I enjoy the kind of back-and-forth in the conversations that happen in the classroom. It can be ignited by the student or by me. When we start engaging and having a dialogue where we’re sharing our ideas, feelings, and research collectively, that’s the moment when it feels really good, that is very helpful in the real world, and I can feel that energy from the students as well. It doesn’t mean that they’re all smiling and in agreement. It’s that conversation; it’s that engagement; it’s “Share what you know about this topic” or “Share what you don’t know about it. What makes you feel enraged or uncomfortable? What can we really learn from this and take from it?” 

Regardless of where you are, who you’re working for; if you’re working with yourself, or if you’re working with others. That’s the moment where a magic is happening. It’s about how we can talk about things so we can feel like we’re all sharing a safe space where we can speak freely without judgment. That’s the core of it for me. I learned that in college, and it did a lot for me, and I want to give that back to the students.

Diana: How can we harbor that kind of thinking and conversations outside art school? Because in a college-classroom context, we are somewhat safe, but in many communities outside the art world, a safe space for critical thinking is a privilege of difficult access and is not a priority.

Taravat: That’s interesting because you’re talking about the inclusivity of higher education, and that’s why I think KSMoCA is so rad. You are all getting in there at such an important time in these children’s lives and education to say, “Look at me. Look at what I’m doing. You can do this if it interests you. Let’s talk about it.” I never got that. My parents were like those parents “I don’t know about you being an artist. What kind of artist?” –Maybe an architect, maybe a graphic designer, you know.

As an educator, I think it is important to insert yourself to open conversations and invitations to younger classes and students. What I have learned here at PSU that I didn’t get from the previous institutions that I worked for is how important it is to be a part of a community outside the institution and be able to share who you are, your work, and how you teach in a very open way that can meet people that don’t have to pay the tuition to be at school. However, l know that that is still very narrow. But I’m always very much accepting those types of invitations. I’m seeking it, trying to be as open as possible. 

Diana: The day that I met you, we were in this gallery, and we were amazed at how fun that was. It felt like a vortex to Portland in a parallel universe. Am I wrong?

Taravat: Yes. Sa’rah Sabino’s opening, where she had a DJ, hip hop music. It was like, DIVERSITY, all caps.

Diana: Why were you so surprised by that event having an out-of-this-Portland vibe?

Taravat: Okay, I was born and raised here. I can tell you firsthand the lack of diversity that the city and state have had forever. I mean, I have never been in one place with that many brown and black people in my life in Portland. So, I was so excited, it was really special and unique. I didn’t see that a lot, I hadn’t experienced that in Portland before. When I was a kid, I was the only brown person there; no one even cared where I was from; they just assumed that I was, you know…

Diana: Sort of Mexican?

Taravat: Yeah. And I was just like, “Okay, cool.” The thing is, in the 80s, you had to learn how to take it; today, nobody is taking it. We all are voicing our opinions, feelings, and preferences regarding how we want to be seen, right? When I was in my 20’s, going out to bars, clubs, and stuff, there was still a lack of diversity in those scenes. I remember around 2010, I was living in San Francisco and would come to Portland once a month, and I wanted to go to bars and clubs with hip-hop music, but It was so hard to find places that play that music here. There were all these articles that would put out something like “entices the wrong type of people.” So that opening was very special, one of a kind. Really exciting to meet you there as I was dancing.

Diana: What can we artists do to nurture that kind of Portland? 

Taravat: I think that Sa’rah Sabino did it right. She created multiple events during her exhibition that generated many different communities to come together. She invited our undergrad students for a gallery talk. She had a couple of DJ open nights, and she just so happens to have a very diverse group of friends. I think that if we can have these kinds of events like just come and dance, just that alone. I mean.., do you know of any places where you can go and dance freely?

Diana: Only my living room.

Taravat: The pandemic really stopped that. There’s just a rad space in the huge lecture hall in the Shattuck Hall, the main floor. It’s just an open, huge auditorium, and I always think, “Can we have a dance party here? An Artist’s Ball?” I believe that the only way to break those barriers of inclusivity, and inviting communities to come together is to hold these types of events.

Diana: I couldn’t agree more.

Taravat Talepasand (she/they) is an artist, activist, and Portland State University art practice professor whose labor-intensive interdisciplinary painting practice questions normative cultural behaviors within contemporary power imbalances. As an Iranian-American woman, Talepasand explores the cultural taboos that reflect on gender and political authority. Her approach to figuration reflects the cross-pollination, or lack thereof, in our Western Society.

Diana Marcela Cuartas (she/her) is a Colombian artist, researcher, and curator transplanted to Portland in 2019. Her work incorporates visual research, popular culture analysis, and knowledge exchange processes, in publications, workshops, parties, or curatorial projects as a framework to investigate the relationships formed between a place and those who inhabit it. With her projects, Diana is interested in shaking off the rigidness of the systems we are inserted into by cultivating spaces to invite people to slow down, think together, share questions, and have fun.