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Navigating Morehshin Allahyari’s She Who Sees the Unknown: The Laughing Snake

by FACT

Online Artwork

Part of the Summer 2018 season

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Much of my recent research, as part of my Masters Degree in Art Museum and Gallery Studies, has revolved around navigating present-day feminist advocacy, which has taken centre stage for the better part of the last couple of years. In light of the Time’s Up and #metoo movements, self-identified women have come forward to draw attention to various types of discrimination they have been subject to. Social media has played a particularly vital role in expanding the reach and impact of their agendas, and has added diverse voices and experiences to these conversations. Nonetheless, the global coverage that feminism has attained is limited at present by means of access to technology, therefore still far from accomplishing complete inclusiveness.

We find ourselves in a state of being almost permanently on, the boundary between real and virtual becoming increasingly blurred. We live in a moment in time where tweets can make or break someone’s life, where post-truths exist to govern our political and social experiences to the point where facts aren’t nearly as important, and where being on and of the online reaffirms one’s existence or relevance.

In this ever-evolving context where information is exchanged at high speed, there is often very little talk about who stays in the margins and why. What voices are left unheard, which histories go on undocumented, what cultures fold under the prevalence of Western ways? And more importantly, how can we give a platform for visibility to those that have been denied it? How can we grow more mindful, to embrace others without otherizing them, without exoticizing their heritage?

For almost fifty years feminist theory, and later queer and postcolonial studies have attempted to explore and integrate the complex relationships that we build under hierarchies of power that are often out of our immediate control. This task has proven ambitious and, at times, delicate, as many voices and variables continue to add meaning, shift direction and guide the discourse, relating and reacting to real-life developments. Feminism has become an umbrella term, a path to address countless issues that intersect in one or more points, something like circle diagrams; there is no fixed definition, because the definition is always revised, always adapted, always improved.

Nowadays, the term feminism often appears accompanied by a prefix or an adjective: post-feminism, cyberfeminism, parafeminism, xenofeminism, global, transnational or intersectional feminism. These have been necessary additions that seek to clarify the aim and scope of certain strands of feminism; the early years of feminist discourse underwent much re-evaluation so as to include and represent diversity in all aspects of gender, sexual orientation, class, race, creed, etc. Nonetheless, Euro-American Centrism is still prevalent, and so, by consequence, there still exists a need to reaffirm and re-include the margins. As such, sometimes contradictions arise from the need to single out a certain category in order to make it visible; one can’t address gender inequality without ultimately reinforcing the gender binary, as one can’t aim to include the other without reinforcing that they are not of the centre.

However, there is always the possibility of focusing on the root of the problem, so as to explore the factors that validate such hierarchies, while exposing them and proposing alternatives for change. Digital colonialism—the theory which explains how tech companies are controlling the information market and leading to a new concept of empire—is one direction in which the conversation can be pointed, as it builds its thesis on the tensions arising from the attempt to control information and access to technology of entire populations and regions, creating a division between the dominating North and the dominated South.

Currently, feminist theory and digital colonialism interconnect in their efforts for advocacy and activism that is dispersed online, but nonetheless keep a critical attitude towards the medium, underlining the bias in representation and visibility when such an increase in representation and visibility is achieved.

All of these matters come to mind while I browse Morehshin Allahyari’s newly commissioned work She Who Sees the Unknown: The Laughing Snake. The motifs of the snake and the mirror which appear throughout are a re-appropriation of a Middle Eastern myth of a monstrous female figure that takes over a city, murdering people and animals while numerous attempts to kill her remain unsuccessful. The snake is finally destroyed when, holding up a mirror to herself, she starts laughing so hard at her own reflection that she dies. By extension, the snake emerges as a complex figure, reflecting a multifaceted and sometimes distorted view of the female, set against the background of contemporary oppression.

The non-linear storytelling reminds me of an early cyberfeminist work by VNS Matrix, A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century (1991). Sharing sharp, unapologetic language, Allahyari’s work takes the genderless techno-utopian future imagined by VNS Matrix and anchors it in present-day events and different socio-political contexts. At the same time, I can’t help but feel that The Laughing Snake resonates with Donna Haraway’s quote ‘I’d rather be a cyborg, than a goddess’ which puts forward the concept of the cyborg as a rejection of boundaries, notably those separating the human from the animal and the human from the machine. Formally, the jinn represents a supernatural creature of Arabian mythology, a cross between animal and human—a snake’s body with a female head. Conceptually, the constructed character moves from traditional collective memory into the realm of the digital, becoming a hybrid product of pasts and presents reunited.

Allahyari constructs narratives into hypertext that the viewer cannot help but identify with; it is even more enticing as one ends up discovering multiple scenarios peeling off into layers of personal and imagined stories, each building on the previous and then starting over, in a cycle with no actual beginning or ending. Born in Iran in the mid-80s, the artist moved to the US in 2007, a fact that clearly shaped the evolution of her practice, which she describes as a form of ‘art activism’[2]. She believes it is necessary ‘to speculate on the effects of colonialism and other forms of present and future oppression’[3] in order to raise awareness and encourage a change in the viewer’s attitude. The usage of poetic language and the re-figuring[4] process towards the networked digital image is what ultimately renders The Laughing Snake relatable to the audience, while still maintaining an analytical approach towards the central concept.

By opting to make this particular work web-based, it simultaneously offers free and open access to the material, while underlining that the free and open aspect of the work only applies preferentially in today’s tech economy. It also sheds light and tackles matters such as cultural visibility and representation, not at the expense of the other, but by shifting the centrality of the discourse and positioning Allahyari’s own culture in context, at the starting point from where the work emerges. She Who Sees the Unknown invites us to make space for the other to shift the dialogue towards them. Diversity, cultural or otherwise, can be embraced by learning, exchanging, discussing, documenting, immersing, allowing that which is different to be viewed not as distant but as part of the whole, in an effort to erase delimitation between centre and margins.

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