Jennifer Lucy Allen: Can you tell me a bit about the residency – who runs it, and how/why you applied?
Helga Fassonaki: It was not a residency. I resided in an artist’s studio for a month, but maybe I confused people by saying that cause many folks have asked me how I got a residency in Iran. My uncle is an abstract expressionist painter and sculptor from Tabriz, Iran who now lives and works out of a studio in Shomal, which is along the Caspian Sea. Because of him I was able to have access to this studio in Tabriz, a city in Northern Iran, part of the East Azerbaijan region.
HF: To me the studio felt like a shrine located in an older part the city, close to an ancient mosque, bazaar, bathhouse, and the museum of Azerbaijan. The studio is three floors – the main floor where I worked was more of a creative thinking hub – a kitchen, lounge area with couch and a single bed for guests, and a rectangle dining table where we’d gather for long lunch exchanges. I worked in one of the side rooms on this floor. The middle floor was covered in paints and stacks upon stacks of paintings and books. The bottom floor was the sculpting studio that was covered in plaster, cement, pottery and had a giant firing kiln. Half the space was filled with huge sculptures and both finished and unfinished projects. There was a tower air shaft that connected the floors and filled with plants. One of my studio mates who I really bonded with would work downstairs and sing while working. With the air shaft windows open, her raw uninhibited voice would resonate upstairs to where I worked. Listening to her voice while I made the scores greatly influenced my process and brought incredible attention to the lone female voice, more so because its banned from public exposure in Iran.
JLA: How extensive was your knowledge of the restrictions on performing before you started the residency?
HF: I was very aware of the laws before going to Iran. The laws were created post 1978, after the revolution, making it difficult for both men and women to perform music other than classical and traditional, especially anything coined ‘western’. And most specifically the law that bans women from singing solo for mixed men/women audiences.
Before I left I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform in Iran publicly, though curious about the ability to do so secretly. But still assuming I wouldn’t, I had an idea for this project to not only draw attention to the issue but also as a way to activate a global response that embraces and acknowledges the freedom of artistic expression. I invited 16 female artists to participate before I left – all 16 accepted to receive a score in a non-standard notation that they would perform publicly in leu of my ability to do so.
JLA: How did you present the work at the residency?
HF: I presented no work while in Iran. I shared my process and the completion of my scores with my studio mates who were supportive and interested in the idea.
JLA: What have you taken away from it, as an individual and an artist?
HF: From my time in Tabriz, I learned about the significance and strength of an art community that really supports one another – its power in overcoming the pressures of society and unjust laws. And that feminism is not about what women can’t do…its about supporting what women do and women supporting other women.
JLA: How does this project relate to your other work?
HF: Most of my projects move through different phases – changing, evolving, and developing along the way. Nothing feels permanent or finished. Often I bring in other artists/musicians to respond, collaborate, or interact creating another dimension or layer to the work. This project is similar where I laid out the initial concept and then offered it outside myself to be interpreted, reflected, acted, performed, altered, expanded and exchanged, in effect creating an on going dialogue and a community outside myself. What happens in transit is what interests me most. All my work tends to be an experiment where the outcome is unknown. I don’t really see the point in doing something I know the outcome of. On the other hand, its not always a clean finish.
JLA: Has anyone’s response surprised you?
HF: Artists sent me audio/video documentation of their public performances which is currently [WAS] showing at Los Angeles Contemporary Archives. I wasn’t necessarily surprised, but very touched by the active and conceptual thought that went into each artist’s different interpretations. Many who don’t normally sing, used their voice and I think it challenged and pushed some artists out of their comfort zones.