8 August 2023
In the summer of 2023, Delfina Foundation presented the first European solo exhibition by its former resident, LA-based Iranian artist, writer, and filmmaker Gelare Khoshgozaran, titled To Be the Author of One’s Own Travels. In this conversation Gelare and the show’s curator, Eliel Jones, delve into the exhibited works, their origins, references, implications, and the process and experience of their making.
Eliel Jones (exhibition curator): I wanted to begin with the title of the exhibition, To Be the Author of One’s Own Travels, which is taken from Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726). It is also the title of one of the films in the show. It reads partly as a statement, and partly as the invocation of a wish or desire. Could you talk about how Swift’s novel has informed the development of this new body of work?
Gelare Khoshgozaran (exhibiting artist): The title comes from Gulliver’s own introduction to his novel, which is a sort of meta novel within the novel way of writing that Swift employs. He’s quoting a letter previously written to his cousin, who was also his publisher, complaining of issues he faced with other publishers who argued his accounts of his travels were too fantastical. He laments that they wouldn’t let him narrate these travels as he wanted to; that they manipulated or distorted his stories. At some point, he writes that these publishers don’t even allow oneself “to be the author of one’s own travels.” I wanted to tap into questions concerning both faith in and incredulity towards so-called fantastical accounts, as this is something that I’m preoccupied by in narratives of trauma, war, or extreme situations, where lived experience can indeed be a lot more surreal than a fabricated, fantastical narrative. The sentence also expresses an intention of sorts, a wish or a desire. To me this speaks to a sense of agency in narrating one’s life — especially as an artist with a particular subject position, who is always expected to speak on behalf of someone, or somewhere. In this sense I wanted the exhibition to be a space to consider how to author, and how to speak of experiences that are both incredibly individual and also collective.
Eliel: Your work of the same title splices together scenes from an animated version of Gulliver’s Travels from 1938. It’s a short, two and a half minute film, shown through a 16mm projector and two prisms which multiply and reflect the film across the room. Here we see Gulliver in the island of Lilliput, where he appears as a giant in a country inhabited by tiny people — perhaps the most recognisable voyage from the novels. The film is faded and appears in technicolour, which is a sort of crimson red tint that naturally occurs with the ageing of film. Why did you decide to introduce these images into the exhibition?
Gelare: Gulliver’s Travels holds a particular place culturally for me. I grew up with it in Iran. Of course, through both the dubbing and the censorship it became a narrative of its own. It was the epitome of the adventurer stumbling upon the weird land where things are different and fantastical. I’ve always been interested in the fact that Gulliver’s arrival in this new land is initially met with confinement and chains, but that he then eventually sets himself free and even manages to create relationships with the locals by trying to be amicable, kind, or understanding of their power dynamics. I tried to reverse the propagandist, colonial way this narrative has been told — where Gulliver is a so-called good colonial subject who manages to gain the respect of the locals, and comes to serve the hierarchy of the kingdom. I cut most of the film and reversed the order so that he starts in confinement, and then his body later washes up on the shore in exhaustion. I also decided to introduce a scene where he’s carrying boats full of people, who are attacking him at the same time. Without the propagandist, romantic, cutesy little Hollywood qualities, the footage brings out a certain weirdness, and turns the gaze around so that we’re now looking at the body of this melancholic coloniser being expulsed by the sea after serving the little people and moving their boats while being attacked. He is no longer so much of an adventurer.
Eliel: Swift’s novel is not the only literary and visual reference that makes an appearance in the exhibition. Indeed, throughout the films, you introduce various cultural, social, and political imaginaries. In To Keep the Mountain at Bay (all works 2023) you invoke American-Lebanese poet and artist Etel Adnan. Not only do several voices recite and respond to Adnan’s poetry (including Adnan herself), but you also dedicate the film to her. What lured you to Adnan’s work and in particular the story of her relationship to California?
Gelare: There was a moment when Adnan’s work became almost like a therapy to me — during a time when I felt an extreme dissonance of living in and being surrounded by the beauty of California, yet also facing the reality of being distant in terms of time zone, head space, and geography from the Middle East, my home. When extreme situations were happening there, like the invasion of Iraq — during which Adnan wrote In the heart of the heart of another country — or during the threat of Trump invading Iran, or the protests happening for Palestine every August, the distance became even more pronounced. I think Adnan’s poetry gave me a way of being present and consolidating that sense of your head and your heart being somewhere else. For me this is provoked in California through the politics and history of violence in that particular context — the beauty and uncanny of the landscape, and the practice of art. She’s deeply invested in Palestine and Lebanon, while at the same time California was very informative to her writing and her thinking. She had this curiosity about the history of California as the place she came to inhabit, which I think is something that as migrants we should always have. That’s the only way to make true political connections and allegiances, to be really connected to where we are, while at the same time really caring for where we come from. Her work is equally invested in being here and over there in a way that makes the two simultaneous — one is not possible without the other.
Eliel: I wanted to draw attention to your own relationship to California, where you arrived from Tehran. You’ve lived and practiced in Los Angeles for over 14 years, and though displacement and its effects has been a recurring conceptual, aesthetic, and political enquiry in your work since, for the first time this exhibition deals directly with the experience and condition of being in exile. Most of your films to date have evaded clear representations of your own personal history by toying between fact and fiction and expanding the possibilities of the essay-film form. Some of your writing has at times engaged with it more directly, particularly your recently published essay The Too Many And No Homes of Exile (2022), which delves into the spatial, temporal, and affective realities of being exiled. I’m interested in your decision to write, make, and share this body of work now. What was the impetus behind wanting — or needing — to tap into such a personal space?
Gelare: I think part of the impetus came from having some time and some distance, and gradually coming to feel comfortable with talking about a subject I had previously decided not to touch. But then came a time when I felt I was ready to talk about this, and that I had a strategy for doing so. I think a big part of that had to do with establishing certain friendships, with being in dialogue with other people who had similar experiences but were celebrating a position of dissent. It wasn’t in dialogue with the huge generation of Iranians who have dwelled on West Los Angeles — which could not be more alienating to me, besides the signs that I can read and the smell of food — but in finding affinities with those whose understanding of home has been formulated by embracing alienation rather than assimilation, or by any affinities linked to nationality.
For many of my peers the politics of time and place is informed by distance, by the border becoming a pre-occupation, as something they continually have to navigate. In some instances people who are systematically uprooted due to genocide, or war, or other historical conditions, such as with Palestine, are generationally deprived from returning to a place. But crossing the border is also sometimes its own exile, and going back and forth involves its own set of calculations. So all this enabled me to think about how this narrative can be constructed collectively, so that while it’s my voice, it’s always through or in relation to others. There is always a back and forth that reflects on the general condition of exile amongst a group of people.
Eliel: The second commissioned film as part of the exhibition, The Retreat, came out of the organising of an exile retreat — an online and physical convening of persons who are experiencing exile in different parts of the world. Can you talk a little bit about how this idea for a retreat came from, and why it felt important to realise it as part of the project?
Gelare: I’ve been engaging with the work of Catalan psychiatrist Francesc Tosquelles for the past year or so, while both working at an educational institution and also being an abolitionist, and thinking about institutions throughout — about what these things mean and how they might intersect. And of course, institutions are also a favourite topic of the art world — reforming institutions, abolishing institutions. With Tosquelles, as a non-abolitionist of the mental hospital institution specifically, he was really engaged hands-on in how to make an institution otherwise. I’ve been involved in some experiments in alternative schools or other kinds of DIY, punk, lefty activists, educational or otherwise informal groups all my life, because of growing up in Iran — all these self-organised, underground, small, sustained, non-funded communities. So I was interested how to carry this through the process of being commissioned with a budget of my own, of handling money, doing research and figuring out the logistics, while at the same time using shared decision-making whenever I could.
All those dynamics were part of the learning and part of the project to me. I was thinking in 2023 that indeed, if anything, exile is the condition of living. When I was researching the cinema of exile I was looking a lot at 1960s, 70s, Raul Ruiz. I turned to a lot of works from Iran, from the Middle East, younger filmmakers who went to exile and started making work about it, which is incredible. But there’s a certain aesthetic — the overcast European city, a lonely man with a deep interiority, a sophisticated protagonist with a day job at a shop. I was really interested in grappling with that. I think one of the reasons we don’t talk enough about exile is that technologies of communication like WhatsApp seem to collapse the distance, even though they actually just make it weirder. I think that’s one aspect of how we perceive it. The other aspect is, I think, a lack of collectivity when we go into exile. We rarely have a social encounter as we would in the old school bars or migrant cafes, where people just run into each other and have a conversation, talk about where they come from. We either encounter each other through jobs, and particularly the art class, or through academic circles and so on. So there’s an urge for reflecting on experiences and it was fascinating to see that unfolding in the retreat. We spent hours talking about each of our immigration processes, but we always started from joking and laughing about some stupid process that we had to go through — discussing differences in the asylum experience, for example US versus Germany.
The Retreat was also inspired by Argentine thinker María Lugones’s concept of “playfulness” and “world travelling.” In her book, Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes (2003), she introduces the practice of “visiting each other’s worlds” as a third world feminist practice as opposed to the bourgeois leisurely activity. She writes about how travelling can be a way of getting to know each other’s worlds — those worlds can be physical, geographical, national, literary. That was really fascinating to me as an entry point into building coalitions transnationally and going beyond these affinities that politicians assign to us.
Eliel: You mentioned earlier Francesc Tosquelles, who might be a new name for a lot of people visiting the exhibition. Your retreat took place in southwest France, close to the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole, in Lozère, where Tosquelles worked for over twenty years during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. Could you say a little more about who Tosquelles was and why did you organise the retreat in this specific location in order to think about the condition of exile?
Gelare: Tosquelles was a Catalan psychiatrist, who ran Saint-Alban Psychiatric Hospital with the psychiatrist Lucien Bonnafé, and he’s considered the father of institutional psychotherapy. There’s many reasons why I’m fascinated by his character and his history, his politics. I’d been thinking for a long time about the word asylum while going through the process to gain citizenship in the US myself, reading about the genealogy of the word and the fact that it is no longer used to refer to psychiatric institutions. I was an extremely privileged asylum seeker, I have to say, because I was already in the US on a student visa, working with a nonprofit that helped facilitate asylum for LGBTQ+ people. I had a network of support. I had friends and a roof above my head. But being in the limbo of the asylum process and having to write your life narrative — unlike Gulliver, not as the author of your own travels, but making the most traumatic experience of your life legible to the asylum officer and to the legal system is an extremely violent and tolling experience that I’m sure any asylum seeker can identify with. I was caught in a backlog and was without a status for an indefinite amount of time.
That time was extremely formative in the way that I live my life, my relationship to objects, how I arrange my space. I developed some chronic pain and health issues, and was also coming to terms with a queer identity — all of that was going on throughout this time. That being the reason that I can merit an asylum, it was very complicated. I then came across Tosquelles and his work at Saint-Alban Hospital. The first medical director Bonnafé was a communist, and with Tosquelles and the permission of the patients, they gave refuge to members of the armed resistance against the Nazis, and of course also to many Jews who were fleeing war and persecution. The asylum became a shelter, which is incredibly powerful but also very simple. Particularly when you think about the times that we’re living in, when empty real estate remains uninhabited, while people in the streets of Los Angeles and London, let alone asylum seekers, don’t have a shelter of any kind to live in. Tosquelles was recruited to Saint-Alban while accommodated as a political refugee at the nearby internment camp called Septfonds, where he was running a makeshift clinic on site, in extremely poor conditions. Saint-Alban Hospital is now a historical site, and hasn’t developed much over time. It was important to me to visit the hospital as a group, so we had this collective experience where each of our languages and life experiences meant we had very different encounters in this place. Reflecting on that complex experience together was quite incredible. Processing that as a group was the synthesis that I was hoping for.
Eliel: These correlations between being in asylum as a person in exile and being in the asylum as a person in need of mental health support, this adjacency between the political and the clinical, strongly relates to Tosquelles’ own work and to thinking about political persecution and war in relation to the development of psychological conditions. It’s perhaps important to note that while Tosquelles developed an incredibly radical anti-concentrationist approach to psychiatry rooted in an anti-carceral desire — in removing distinctions between patient and doctor, integrating patients with the local community, and involving them in various forms of work and cultural production — his vision was one of reform, rather than of the abolition of the psychiatric hospital. How do these various approaches to and positions on abolition speak to your experience of exile? What does that mean in the contexts both of your work, and of abolitionist desires?
Gelare: I think what’s appealing to me about Tosquelles methodology is firstly that it’s never perfect, and secondly that it’s not a blueprint. It has limitations and blind spots, especially concerning race and gender. He was invested in building institutions of care, and in this instance doing so using an existing framework. This is a little different to the anti-psychiatry movement in the UK and in Italy, for instance, in R. D. Laing and David Cooper’s circles, which often advocated the wholesale abolition of the institution. During Frantz Fanon’s time working at Saint-Alban they even practiced electrocuting in tandem with psychoanalysis. But all with the caveat that psychoanalysis can’t be a bourgeois practice of healing the individual, there has to be a collective, political current. Thirdly, Tosquelles was seeing and practising all this through Marxism — for him class and political economy are inseparable from those other two elements. He left the Communist Party in Spain because his side had taken a Stalinist turn and he didn’t identify with that. I think this is where he complicates things. He institutes with care, bringing in psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, Marxism — it’s always relational. He involves the patients in making decisions, even down to creating the menu for their weekly meals.
When I think about exile, I think about this position of alienation, of being a stranger. Experiencing the asylum system or being a refugee subject forms vantage points. If you’ve gone through the process of seeking asylum you look at nation states in a different way — how they’re constituted, how they represent themselves, which political subjects or citizens merit being citizens in the building of this nation, who is already meriting that citizenship by virtue of birth. If these alienated subject positions come together collectively, they can provide a new way of looking at the structures of power we have otherwise been desensitised to. Of course, in my attempt the scale is minuscule. The impact, if you will, that I’m looking for, is at the level of consciousness. I think exile, collectivity, and a political conviction to examine the dynamics we’ve otherwise become used to do have the potential to address these conditions, even if we can’t always combat them head-on.
Eliel: This question of change through consciousness is as urgent as ever. Just this past week a boat carrying more than 500 people sank in the waters of Greece, killing most of the people on it, including up to a hundred children. Only 104 people are known to have survived. Seeking asylum in the UK has essentially been criminalised by this Conservative government. The government recently invested £1.6 billion in the building of a new infrastructure to hold asylum seekers in off-shore barges — which essentially amount to prisons on water. They have also held asylum seekers in disused and derelict army barracks, and will soon send them outside of the country, with hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money being paid to the Rwandan government to accommodate asylum seekers in immigration facilities while their claims are being “processed” (with no real guarantee that they will ever be able to come to the UK).
It is hard to comprehend the amount of psychological, emotional and bodily damage these forms of carcerality are engendering, and yet the social and political conversation largely remains around rights of birth or blood; on who is allowed to enter or not, on who is considered legitimate and who is considered a criminal. The Retreat comes from this geo-political context, yet it doesn’t rely on the narratives or images that recreate the violence of these experiences, instead reconfiguring how we think about exile and its effects on the body and the mind of the exiled. It provides us with an urgent reminder to demand and enact an abolitionist politics; not only for prisons but for borders. Is this one of the ways in which you imagine the condition of exile opening up a space for transnational solidarity?
Gelare: It’s very tricky, precisely because of this context, to be producing images in relation to the subject — and this applies across all forms of image circulation, whether that’s in the news media, the culture industry, the popular entertainment business or in art. I’m constantly thinking about the ethics of image-making and who I put in front of the camera. Legible identities or voices are very uncomfortable to me because they serve a particular narrative that ends up being part of that currency, no matter how we might try to dodge it. In so many of these carceral images, including images of what happens at the US-Mexico border, these moments are documented to send the message: don’t come, it’s not safe, it’s not good, it’s not heaven. As though people don’t know that already, as though they need to see further evidence. It’s very damaging — these people are advocating and advancing death policies. They’re invested in death. There’s no other way of putting it. Death of the environment, of the natural world. This carceral mentality, the binary of the criminal/legitimate, has such damaging effect on the possibility of radical politics to be formed in migrant communities after their survival. The images these policies produce are very powerful, very dangerous vectors for reinforcing these binary ideas, and they have long-lasting effects. Once you arrive, once you have survived that system, then who do you become? The good subject, the good assimilated subject who becomes yet another tyrant, as we’re seeing in UK politics, with Priti Patel, Suella Braverman, even now with the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. So it’s not just a matter of race, of who is white or not white. What are the damaging effects of that generationally on those who gain legitimacy through asylum?
Tosquelles is essentially an abolitionist of prisons. Anti-concentrationism is the abolition of prisons and prison mentality. That is also, of course, not separate from the military, or from the tyranny of the images of propaganda. All of these things are present in the work, from Gulliver’s body being washed up on the shore, to naming the film The Retreat, which is a time of laying low and pausing, reflecting. Poverty, displacement, the condition of exile are all being actively invested in. This is by design. There is literal, which is to say financial, investment pouring into these things and being extracted from them. It’s a business. The military-industrial complex, the NATO alliances, and the imperialist, old school dictators all benefit from this environment. As refugees, the horrors that we live with every day persist — which means that in these conditions of exile and poverty mental illness is also being reproduced by that by design. This means that we are in more and more need of mental health support. You can’t continue to perpetuate the same problem and at the same time address it and make the cure for it. Abolition is necessary as a first step to prevent further damage. We are reproducing all this at a higher rate that we can possibly address it. That was why bringing exile and these two meanings of the asylum and mental health together became a crucial political decision for me in order to talk not just about the ‘refugee crisis’ — which is really the wrong term — but also about where these two crises overlap and how they reproduce each other.