Rooms of One’s Own for Continuous Discourse. Borders and Artist Residents

Artist residency programs are designed to remove restrictions, embracing artistic production with openness. Coming from Iran, filmmaker Shirin Barghnavard is continuously limited by borders. Her fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude enabled a path forward. But she asks: How did possibilities and options change after the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis during which artistic paths were further restricted by national boundaries? These reflections were written in mid-2020, and first published in On Care. A Journey into the Relational Nature of Artists‘ Residencies.

by Shirin Barghnavard — Mrz 24, 2023

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Rooms of One’s Own for Continuous Discourse. Borders and Artist Residents

Shirin Barghnavard. Photo: Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah

We are in the midst of strange days. In March 2020, Covid-19 emerged, and its spread was declared a pandemic. A pandemic that has revealed to us the deeper dimensions of the concepts of border, wall, limitation, and power.

Artist residency programs are designed to avoid restrictions, to allow artists around the world to move and cross borders both geographical and mental. They are there to break stereotypical habits that exist in social relations. They prove that they can create thought-provoking events, regardless of the concepts defined by border and nationality, if the ground for discourse and experience and space for talking about the concerns and thoughts of artists is provided. But due to this pandemic, what we are witnessing today has become an obstacle to residency programs’ goals. Borders are closed for artists to move, and a residency program is not a compelling reason to cross these borders.

What is happening today is shocking and alarming. This pandemic has provided excuses to most ruling systems, governments, decision-makers, and politicians around the world to test their absolute power in the direction of nationalism, racism, discrimination, and hegemony against each other and against nations. And this is what I expect artist residency programs to go against.

There are different types of residency programs for artists. Apart from the luxurious and commercial residency programs, which instead of being a place for dialogue and exchange become more of a place for artists to relax, other residency programs have the potential for empiricism, knowledge acquisition, and change. One can hope that the basis of residency programs is trust; on continuity of movements and thoughts. The two quarterly residency programs (Harun Farocki Institut in Berlin in 2017 and the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart in 2018) I experienced as a female documentary filmmaker based in Tehran, the capital city of a geopolitically sensitive country like Iran, held such potential for me.

Aside from the opportunity to screen my films at Silent Green Kulturquartier and Delphi Arthaus Kino, to have discussions with artists like Constanze Ruhm, Christoph Dreher, Vinicius Jatobá, and Susanne Foidl, to run workshops and lectures at Merz Akademie – Hochschule für Gestaltung, Kunst as well as Medien and Filmuniversität Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF, the space provided by both residency programs allowed me to expand the scope of my documentary film about nationality and border from the research phase to the production stage.

Together with the Goethe-Institut, once a year the Harun Farocki Institut offers selected candidates the opportunity to live and work in Berlin on a scholarship. I was the second fellow of the Harun Farocki Residency. Nourished by my own experience – I had lived in Perth, Australia, for six years – my goal was to research the subject of a short essay documentary film, which revolves around the complex of nationality that I have been exploring for years.

In Berlin alone, I recorded 30 audio interviews with various artists, filmmakers, writers, and theorists with different backgrounds and very different approaches. These discourses made dramatic changes in my point of view on the subject I had chosen and the film I wanted to make. As an Iranian, I always saw discrimination against Iranians who only have an Iranian passport. During this film’s research process, I realized that many people from different parts of the world, including Europe, have similar issues regarding their nationalities. In fact, the context of »nationality« is imposed on us and will remain attached to us forever, forming a kind of identity for us no matter where we come from. What I learned from my interviews was in line with the Berlin Wall and its very bitter history tied to bigotry and hegemony. The seeds of the Berlin Wall were sown in nationalism. My attention was drawn to the remnants of the Berlin Wall. Then I thought I could take the opportunity to be in Berlin to shoot my film.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Rooms of One’s Own for Continuous Discourse. Borders and Artist Residents

Photo: Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah

My fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude was a cooperation fellowship with Merz Akademie in Stuttgart. At the Schloss, I was provided an editing room to edit the film that I had just shot in Berlin. I also continued to record ten more audio interviews with artists from the Schloss. The result turned to a 27-minute documentary film titled Invisible. The film shows the remnants of the Berlin Wall today, surrounded by excited tourists, taking photographs while we hear the voices of several artists from different backgrounds who talk about their bitter personal experiences imposed on them due to their nationalities. These voices express their protest over the emphasis on the term »nationality,« a very strong but hidden and invisible wall of today. They believe that stressing the concept of nationality deepens the boundaries and separation between people, a separation similar to the one the Berlin Wall once created.

Now I have been invited to participate in the exhibition curated by Akademie Schloss Solitude called Beyond Walls at Kunstmuseum Stuttgart (November 2020 to January 2021), where current and former fellows display works that they have developed during their residency period. There will be two screenings of Invisible followed by a panel discussion with Doreen Mende, a board member at the Harun Farocki Institut. Also Vinicius Jatobá, narrative, essay and theater writer and former fellow of Akademie Schloss Solitude wrote a text about the film for the exhibition booklet. Interviews with both Mende and Jatobá are used in the film. In my view, this is an effort by Akademie Schloss Solitude and the Harun Farocki Institut to preserve the concept of continuity; a principle that I think should be a feature of residency programs; the continuity that does not occur in luxurious residency programs, and with the end of the residency period, often all the connections formed also end.

The impact of a residency program for an independent filmmaker like me who has gradually lost her motivation to participate in her country’s film industry is not only limited to these. What I can call an achievement is the enlightenment that comes through meetings and interviews, cultural dialogue, sharing experiences, and participating in events. I like to understand the dynamism of art as a process that is formed by »artistic discourse« that can only evolve in an atmosphere free of censorship and terror. Discourse creates disambiguation and builds meaning and concept. Perhaps I have never felt the lack of discourse in Iranian society as much as I do today. In these times and geographies, safe and reliable spaces for discourse among artists are increasingly limited and destroyed. If these discourses take place in confined scopes, there is not much reflection on them to greater audiences in order to create more detailed discussions to expand the topic. This has led to a kind of self-censorship and confusion in the Iranian art scene. A kind of failure of concepts; a discontinuity. And this discontinuity hinders the maturity and flourishing of thoughts. For me, the key phrase »censorship creates creativity« has completely lost its meaning. This phrase was a general and shared opinion among many Iranian filmmakers and artists – mostly the previous generation – who continued to work after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and were severely censored by the new government. This may have met the artistic needs of society at one time, but to me it has lost its function at this time. Most artists, including me, still insist on working under a variety of pressures. However, the artistic situation in Iran today is too chaotic to allow me to understand whether there is common sense today or a new mantra instead.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Rooms of One’s Own for Continuous Discourse. Borders and Artist Residents

Photo: Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah

Although for those of us who live in Iran, recounting issues that are opposed to the system – even when spoken abroad – can have serious consequences, I still feel that artist residency programs can be important sources of motivation for having discourses about art, free from censorship and the heavy shadow of threats. They allow an artist like me to think, research, analyze, and express topics that don’t have room for detailed critique. This becomes more important to me as an Iranian artist, especially when in Iran except for a few limited cases like Kooshk Residency in Tehran and Va Space for Contemporary Art in Isfahan, there are few residency programs that accept artists from different countries. Therefore, the possibility of exchange between Iranian and foreign artists is very limited. Film festivals are still good places for the exchanging artistic ideas but Iran’s cinema has almost no coproduction with other countries. The internet can also be a place of exchange. But in general, artists do not practice and experience artistic interaction with the international community because they are not trained and accustomed to it. The necessity of interacting with other international artists is not felt and the attitude is not encouraged. Here, I mostly refer to the community of Iranian filmmakers, which is doing poorly in this regard.

Another concept that purposeful artist residency programs are effective in preventing are »stereotypes« that cast a heavy shadow over the social relations of different cultures and backgrounds. With providing a dynamic space for artists to interact, and the effort they put into the continuity of relations and exchange of ideas, they can challenge the stereotypical perception that are often the result of simplistic, exaggerated, and humiliating assumptions about different nations; mental stereotypes that inhibit and distort the discourse of critical thinking and are often embedded in popular beliefs and transmitted through the mass media.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Rooms of One’s Own for Continuous Discourse. Borders and Artist Residents

Photo: Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah

I cannot conclude without again mentioning Covid-19, because all aspects of my life are now affected by it; a phenomenon that has divided the history of the world to a »before« and »after.« We know that artists are some of the most vulnerable communities in times of crisis. Covid-19’s effects are certainly one of the saddest events of the century, but the political dimensions it has found are very worrying. Covid-19 gave new dimensions to the concepts of borders and walls and redefined them in a way.

Can artist residency programs play an effective role in fighting this approach and be more on the side of artists, cooperating with them as much as they can? Because residency programs are important and should flow. Because they enable us to have rooms of our own where we can experience continuous cognitive spheres.

Shirin Barghnavard is a documentary filmmaker and editor based in Tehran. Since 2000 she has been actively working as writer, director, producer, and editor of many awardwinning short and feature-length fiction and documentary films such as Poets of Life, Scenes from a Divorce, and Profession: Documentarist. In her documentary films, Barghnavard combines general social issues with specific research on the role of women in the society.

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