By Rebecca Fulp-Eickstaedt
Tell me about the narrative you create in The Myth of Layla. In what ways is this fictional story influenced by reality and your experiences as an Iranian-American woman living in the present-day United States?
The Myth of Layla (TMOL) is a participatory multimedia performance and installation about political ideology, celebrity-obsessed media, and an Iranian-American activist named Layla based on my personal history. TMOL is a science fiction allegory set in a near future when a big-brother media conglomerate called The Network runs the US government and is at war with a fictionalized Middle Eastern country akin to Iran. The leader of the Network is a reality show host, similar to President Trump, who employs media-manipulation tactics such as fear of the Other, violence, and propaganda as reasonable safety-measures. In The Myth of Layla, Layla’s cultural connection to the supposed enemy allows for her to see through the media spin of Middle Easterners as dangerous and inhuman, and she creates a video protesting the war, which goes viral and attracts the Network's attention. The Host invites her onto a reality show, “Activists in Sexy Solidarity” (ASS), promising more views and support for her cause, and ultimately preying on her desire for justice. However, the Network manipulates and co-opts Layla’s story for their own purposes—her political ideology is ultimately corrupted by their mechanisms of attention, fame, and targeted racial profiling.
I began the project in 2014, developing the story's characters and worldview in tandem with my own unfolding narrative as an Iranian-American woman living in the US. I was in residence at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Workspace program exploring family mythologies, political activism, science fiction, and fear-mongering against Middle Easterners in the Western media. The piece originated from my father's story of immigration from Iran—living in Iran in the early 1950's under Mossadegh, he was protesting the CIA-backed coup to oust the Iranian leader and threw a rock at a governmental building in protest. A news photographer snapped a picture, which ended up on the cover of one of the newspapers in Tehran and his parents (my grandparents), being afraid for his safety, arranged for him to move to the US. This story, however true it was, not only fueled my (and subsequently the fictionalized character of Layla's) fire for activism, it also exposed the power of the media to target, invoke fear, and change the course of people's lives. When I started TMOL, I saw reflections of my father's immigration mythology blended with current-day global terror paranoia in the dystopian science fiction I was ravenously reading and watching like George Orwell's 1984, Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and the television series Black Mirror. These science fiction allegories about systems of media control and corporate culture have now become all too real with the ascendance of Trump from reality TV stereotype/brand to Tweet-crazy President. Leading up to the 2016 US Presidential Election, I thought Trump would lose and TMOL would have existed as a cautionary tale against the dangers of media obsession. The opposite happened, and with executive orders such as the Muslim Ban in place, my world has broken apart. The trip I was planning with my now 81-year-old father to Iran can't happen, and this seems like nothing in comparison to what other families are dealing with. The Myth of Layla is a reality I'm living in now—the Host of the Network is Trump, the Middle Easterner is his "terrorist threat" enemy, and I'm Layla, protesting constantly and producing social media content about resisting and humanizing the Middle Eastern perspective. Will my story get co-opted by seismic forces of societal control and repression? Will activism take this turn into a sexy/commodified realm? (What are we wearing to the protest, how is the resistance self-stylizing and being stylized?) The current narrative I wrote myself into is still unfolding, and we have yet to see how it will end.
You talk a lot about your love of the science fiction genre. How did that blossom, and how does your passion for sci-fi reveal itself in your work?
My love of science fiction started when I went to film school in Austin, TX. I was 18 and I had never really gotten into Star Wars, Star Trek, or science fiction writing. I always felt that the genre was written by and for a white male audience, and I still think that's often the case. Women were supporting characters or sex symbols, and people of color were left out of the narrative altogether. Then I was introduced to Octavia Butler, a Black Afrofuturist female author, who was writing about sociopolitical issues of today through a futuristic lens. I fell in love with the worlds she created, which represented the intense struggles of people of color and women, in fantastical alien landscapes often completely separate from our reality. At that same time, I started getting into Sun Ra, who is also an Afrofuturist, but he's an avant-garde jazz musician who references Black Power and non-Western cosmologies in his aesthetics. He used Egyptian iconography and glittering gold capes and headdresses—he thought that the avant-garde jazz world took itself too seriously, and I would argue that the art world is the same way. I'm finally unafraid to claim humor as part of my practice, and Sun Ra was the first to inspire me to do so. Around that same time I saw 2001 by Stanley Kubrik, Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, and They Live by John Carpenter. I love dystopian futures because I see our future/current society reflected in their landscapes. Especially now with our current administration, it feels like we're in a big-brother controlled Orwellian 1984 reality. What's incredible about 1984 is that it was written almost 100 years ago and has predicted where we're at both politically and technologically on some level. Blade Runner got me interested in Philip K. Dick's work, as he wrote the book the film was based on, and I started giving male sci-fi authors another chance. This led to an obsession with Cyberpunk, and I was reading work from authors like William Gibson, Neil Stephenson, and Dick. Most of the narratives describe a troubled future, and much of the action takes place online, in cyberspace, blurring the line between actual and virtual reality. These books were written in the 70's/80's/90's, and they've also predicted our current reality with the ubiquitous way we use technology in our phones/computers—we now define ourselves through our digital representations of self via social media.
I moved away from sci-fi as I moved into graduate school. I was more interested in personal and family mythology and started a years-long investigation of the stories that have defined my Iranian-American identity. As I started The Myth of Layla in 2014, my interest in Science Fiction had reemerged—I was/am a member of a science fiction book club and started getting back into the writing. I was also seeing a lot of these future dystopias coming true in the culture around us—we are living through technology in a corporate-driven society, obsessed with celebrity on any level from getting a lot of "likes" to being a reality show star to being Beyoncé/Trump. In America, we are living in a culture of mass distraction while there is mass destruction and war that we're involved with happening around us. So I wrote a script with my dramaturg, Yuliya Tsukerman, where the narrative is set in a "near future dystopia," where everyone lives in police state-run precincts similar to The Hunger Games, and we're at constant war with a fictionalized country similar to Iran called Urania. Broadening the scope of the narrative in true sci-fi form and creating a fictionalized country, I was able to also talk about many US/Middle East conflicts at once. I address Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. Since the US is run by a big-brother media conglomerate in TMOL, and the leader is a reality show host, screens/entertainment/militarism has becoming the prime concern—it has become a screen-based world and for that reason there is an energy crisis. The US has invaded Urania for its energy resources and because of this, there is a Uranian refugee crisis in the US. The world looks surreal; the characters have gold/silver painted bodies to represent wealth. The costumes and the colorful nature of the installation are also a nod to 1960's low-budget sci-fi films and video artists like Kenneth Anger, where you can see the seams of the world cracking apart.
This is also a trope I use in my sci-fi rap/performance art group called C∆N-D, which is a collaboration with sound artist Michael Clemow. We dress in outlandish outfits, inspired by Sun Ra, to represent my alien outsider-ness while injecting the rap genre with humor. C∆N-D uses the popular media forms of rap and music videos blended with certain aesthetics and references from DIY sci-fi and Afrofuturism to critique the consumer-driven sociocultural landscape of America.
In your last response, you talked a little bit about your interest in personal and family mythology, as well as your exploration of identity. Tell me a little more about that. How are concepts of the self tackled in your work? How does your art challenge peoples’ understandings of who they are? How does it allow you to examine who you are?
Being raised as an Iranian-American woman in an Evangelical suburb of Texas created a sense of disassociation from and confusion about my cultural heritage and identity. I was ambiguously brown, and even though I could often pass, I wasn't white. Beyond the shade of my skin and the shape of my eyes, my identity was also formed through the lens of my family's stories and the Western media. I was an American kid, growing up with and defining myself through trashy teen magazines, celebrity-driven sitcoms, and cheaply-made clothes at the mall. This exterior life both blended and contrasted with my family's interior life of leftist political dialogue, religious gatherings full of Persians, and sturdy well-worn artifacts from Tehran. Being half-Iranian, my identity was even further fractured. Among my American friends, I was the Middle Eastern kid with a unibrow and a strange religion. To my Persian friends and family, I was the super-American one, unable to speak fluent Farsi. My mother was raised Italian-Catholic in Philadelphia, and didn't speak any Farsi even though my parents had been together for decades. This speaks to my father's desire to assimilate as a survival mechanism—he didn't want to be viewed as the outsider but he couldn't escape his appearance, accent, and racist American countrymen. I didn't have the same experience he did, but when we would go to the mall and hear things like, "Go back to where you came from," I internalized his pain. At home, my father would cope by retelling me the stories I had already heard many times—what his family home was like in Iran, how he immigrated, how my parents met. These family mythologies shaped the fabric of who I am, and built an idealized world of Iranian culture outside of time and physical space—they transcended our family's immigrant experience of exterior/interior life, public/private interactions, insider/outsiderness. For me, family mythologies and memories became the imagined landscapes and textures I used as the material in my early artistic practice. Through artmaking, I wanted others to question how their family's stories create the foundation of their identity, whether they try to transcend them or relive them.
In my multimedia performance series PRACTICE, I used my family's most-told stories as a script and re-enacted these narratives acting as all the characters while including actual archival home video as a counterpoint. I performed live and in video as my father and mother, a televangelist yoga teacher, and a self-help guru. PRACTICE investigates how we define our identity through the imagined versions of our families—their voices in our heads, their gestures in our bodies—and the archival versions as shown through old photographs and home videos. Is one of these versions more "real" or "authentic" than the other? How do both of these forms help create a self? What role does time and nostalgia play in the ability to transcend our past? Using humor and popular media forms such as exercise videos and infomercials in the projected video content, I investigated the definition of self not only as how we see ourselves reflected through our families, but also as reflected through the Western media. Influenced by the ideology of the Situationist International movement, which advocated for fighting commercial culture with its own weapons, I modeled this tactic through co-opting popular media genres and using them as an alternative space for the investigation of personal mythology.
The Father Tapes series is where PRACTICE started—I began questioning ideas of selfhood by embodying my father and then directly addressing myself on-screen in short testimonial-style videos. Where does my distinct identity as the individual "Amy Khoshbin" begin, and how much of it is influenced by my father's narratives and my connection to Iranian culture via his identification? The Father Tapes began by asking my father a series of questions that specifically relate to his experience as an Iranian in America: How do you feel about the holidays? Were you good at math? Could there be an Iranian-American president? The record of his response became the script I performed. Acting as my father talking to me, looking directly into the camera and creating a feedback loop between his gaze and mine, I attempt defining where his words begin and mine end. As bell hooks writes in her essay, The Oppositional Gaze, "Even in the worst circumstances of domination, the ability to manipulate one's gaze in the face of structures of domination that would contain it, opens up the possibility of agency." She is discussing the black oppositional gaze in media, but I would argue this stands for Iranian-Americans as well as women trying to understand their role as defined through a partriarchally-controlled society. By gazing directly at the camera, I open up the possibility of transcending my definitions of identity.
You're not brown, just tan is an installation and series of videos that reduced my cultural memories to iconography. These icons were transformed into hybrid objects where the form is Iranian and the material is taken from my youth in suburban Texas—BackgamMonopoly is a recreation of my family's backgammon game using my childhood Monopoly board, UpholsteRug is a recreation of my family's prized Persian rug using couch upholstery. Is cultural heritage something that can be defined by the objects and consumer products we collect? With a television at the center of the installation space screening a series of "shows" I created in different TV styles—a cooking show, a music video in which I sing the only words of Farsi I know, and a movie trailer—I also utilized the medium that shaped my identity to disseminate my hybrid set of cultural cues to the audience.
In my current work such as The Myth of Layla and The Scheherazade Project, I have departed from such a direct investigation of family mythology, memory, nostalgia, and identity. In both projects, I use cultural or familial references—The Myth of Layla uses my cultural heritage and my own history of activism, while The Scheherazade Project uses direct cultural references from the famous Persian story One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. However, in these projects I call into question the role of the media in shaping our identities. Consuming mainstream media shaped my definitions of beauty, strength, good, and evil not only in the world, but also in myself. I became obsessed with creating my own media at an early age to redefine these value systems. To this day I retain the use of humor and handmade aesthetics to throw a counterpunch at the high-definition, profit-generating codes and signals that American audiences are trained and accustomed to consuming. In The Myth of Layla, I act as all of the characters in video, and the character of Layla on-stage, as a way of suggesting digital and social media has become an echo chamber of the self. Targeted advertisements, selfies, and our political posts serve as self-identification in our new technological landscape. By acting as all the media personalities, I question the narcissistic effect of user-generated media and the solipsistic feedback loop it creates. In The Scheherazade Project, I translated the narrative of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights into a modern context. Scheherazade is represented through the video screen, slowly wooing the disillusioned king into her world through media stories where reality and fiction blend.
It's awesome to learn a little more about your various projects. You have also taken part in many collaborations, with artists whose specialties range from photography to poetry. What has it been like to work with so many different artists, and how have your partnerships influenced your solo work?
Working collaboratively has always been a part of my practice, from making films with my friends as a child to working on video installation and performance projects with artists like Laurie Anderson, Karen Finley, writer Anne Carson, and sound artist Michael Clemow. The fields I primarily work in, video and performance, are often highly collaborative. But I would argue that most artistic practices aren't fully "solo"; they usually involve many people—producers, fabricators, curators, videographers, assistants, lighting designers, etc. The myth of a solo auteur isolated in their studio creating a master vision is often not true, or at least not for me. Every person I've worked with in the creative field has influenced my "solo" practice in a different way, from conceptual development with collaborators and dramaturgs to creating DIY strategies for lighting with assistants and lighting designers. My mentors, like multidisciplinary artists Karen Finley and Laurie Anderson, helped expand my primarily video-based practice from performing only on camera to performing live using video as sets and characters. I met Karen and Laurie in grad school at NYU, and they taught me to stay open and find inspiration through all of the connections I was and am making. I collaborated with both of them primarily as a video designer, often creating multichannel video for their live "solo" performances. They were the only performer onstage, but when we incorporated video to surround their body in space, their presence was magnified. I started using this tactic in my own practice, and now I often create performative installations where the video screened in the show is part of the world of the performance. World-building and writing these worlds into being I also learned from them. Writing has become an integral part of my practice, and I have had the pleasure of working with the writer Anne Carson on my most recent project. Her sharp way of crafting language that cuts to the core, and her balance between humor and seriousness have all filtered into the way my brain processes and works with language. Certain artists I've worked with have inspired me in a sound and conceptual sense. Michael Clemow, the other half of our sci-fi rap group C∆N-D, has taught me how to be unafraid to tackle mediums I don't feel as well-versed in. Even though I am a trained classical pianist, I wasn't very active in performing music until we started working together on our noise band nine years ago, And Um Yeah. In this group, my perspective around mastery changed, and improvisation and experimentation became a larger part of my process. Having a film and new media background, most of my projects were rigidly planned out ahead of time and executed, except for when I was working on videos with one of my best friends, filmmaker Jessica Gardner. We learned how to make large things with few resources. Later, when I took Skinner Releasing Technique, an improvisational dance class with Karl Anderson, I continued trying and claiming new mediums and forms. This time the form was the body itself, and in these classes I met performance artist Liz McAuliffe, who I then created a series of movement and dance-based performances with. She also collaborated with me on The Myth of Layla in its development phase, and during this process she taught me to be open to the idea of failure and how it is a necessary part of creation. So much of that piece was created through the unexpected and incredible juxtapositions that happen when you create participatory performance. Working collaboratively is vital to keeping my ideas and energy percolating, and there are so many artists and creatives I've had the privilege of working with that I don't have space to list here. But my newest collaboration with my siblings, Noah and Jennifer Khoshbin, is re-teaching me the importance of family connections in my practice, and also as support in our chaotic sociopolitical landscape.
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