We talk with the Iranian artist Mohsen Hazrati, new media artist and co-founder of «DAHProject».
What has led you to focus your art on local culture?
I was born and raised in Shiraz. A city famous for its literature, culture, poets, gardens, and wine. Each has somehow affected my life and particularly my artistic career. The mysterious poems of Hafiz and Saadi were always very inspiring to me. So, after I discovered new media art and its potential, I tried to find ways to interpret this mystical world digitally and hopefully get it updated in the digital world.
Where did your interest and inspiration with net art come from?
I have a graphic design background. I started working in a company as a 2D animator in 2006. There I started experimenting with Macromedia Flash. It was thrilling to play with motion and timelines for the first time. Then I studied visual communication and graphic design at Shiraz university in 2008. This was an opportunity to experience this software further as a tool of self-expression and creation. This led to my final thesis, an interactive installation including webcams and Macromedia Flash. Finally, I faced and experienced the actual art scene, after starting the «DAHProject».
How do you go from doing these kind of works to working with Virtual Reality?
Myriam Vanneschi (an art advisor), while collaborating with us on the DAHProject, brought us an Oculus DK1. That was my first encounter with VR. I can only express the excitement by recalling its similarities to a newfound playground. I believe VR could be a strong port between artists and audiences and develop many new ways of undergoing the process for both. Yet as a digital artist, I always like to try out different hardwares and softwares (even possibilities) in technology to actualise ideas best. I don’t like limitations, not even to a specific technology.
What is the purpose of your art? What do you want to communicate with your works?
My art is a reflection of my inspirations and researches in local culture and literature. I try to link digital technology and Shiraz’s mystic nature and therefore add new layers of experience to it. For example, in one of my research topics I’m trying to make a connection between artificial intelligence and an old Iranian bibliomancy tradition, with Hafiz poems through a VR experience. The main purposes of this project are to bring this tradition into the digital world, and use online data to translate the result (which is classically a poem) into visual language, and this way find a new way to make an intimate dialogue between human and machine.
You have an art gallery in your country, the DAHProject. How did you decide to run your own project?
My friend Milad and I graduated in 2013. Interested in digital arts, we couldn’t find local references or institutes in new media art. So we decided to run our own place to improve ourselves and therefore our city and country. We started a non-profit project in Shiraz. We rented an art gallery and appointed it as a pivot of our activities. We hosted and ran exhibitions, workshops, online meetings, and lectures, and invited artists of any field to join us in our community. But after 1.5 years, due to the costs, we decided to change our strategy and extend our activities into other art galleries and public spaces as temporary events and run curated projects. We also started a teaching project to improve local potential in the digital art field.
Have you ever suffered a censorship episode related to the exhibitions or with your work?
All our activities focused on our city, so keeping this project alive there was one of our important aims. thus we always considered the general rules and limitations for selecting artists and works in our exhibitions. With that said, one of the few cases of censorship was in 2013 in a GIF show where we had over 50 GIF animations to show and we were asked to remove some of them from the exhibition. And in my artistic works, because the main research topics are more about my city’s culture, and my perspectives are not so much in political fields, I haven’t had any specific issue yet!
Considering the political situation between Iran and the US, are there any issues in regard to access to technology – particularly related to VR – since most of it is owned by American companies?
Accessing up-to-date equipment and technologies is important for a digital artist, and of course there are so many issues in using both hardware and software assets in my country. VR headsets are much more expensive than the usual international cost because of the sanctions, and our USD exchange rate issue is also a factor in their accessibility. And there is absolutely no access to warranty or legal retail. In the case of software, there are also many problems too. Since there is no international payment available in our country, the copyright payments are totally out of the question. We also have filtering in our country and can’t access many websites, including YouTube, Vimeo and so on without a VPN. Also, so many companies stopped their online services to our country’s IPs. For example, this is how the Oculus, HTC Vive and Leap Motion websites open to our IP in Iran; Unity3D used to show the exact error about sanctions years ago but recently they changed it to a normal URL problem!
You have recently participated in an international VR residency at Espronceda Institute of Art and Culture, here in Barcelona. How was the experience?
I’m so glad I took part in this amazing experience. I worked alongside ten artists from around the world on different projects. Everyone had their own different ideas and backgrounds but we worked together. I was so excited for me to be a part of two projects in this residency with two different technical and conceptual aspects. And finally, the result of the residency was presented in the Espronceda gallery and we got so much amazing feedback and comments. In addition, we were invited to many meetings and visited places which had simultaneous activities around the city during the residency.
Recommended citation: MOSAIC. Interview with Mohsen Hazrati. Mosaic [online article], October 2020, no. 186. ISSN: 1696-3296. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7238/m.n186.2037