Rah Eleh, FK News, 2021
Still from Video with AI. 4:13
Still from Video with AI. 4:13
Rah Eleh’s work critiques the visual stereotypes and performative aspects that shape female gender identity and national identity. She is interested in how race and gender are performed from multiple layered perspectives: exilic, queer, decolonial and diasporic. She uses three characters, developed over the course of her career, to explore issues of race, gender, ethnicity, language, technology and spatiality – Fatimeh, Oreo and Coco. For Temp Files, Rah tried something a little different with these characters.
Rah talks about the creation of her new video within the context of her work with Temp Files’ Michelle Levy below.
A PDF of the interview is available here.
ML: Temp Files artists are challenged to experiment and test something out that we may not have tried otherwise. How was your video a departure and opportunity for you?
RE: I took this opportunity to explore various AI tools and the poetics of AI to develop a script for my characters, and to think about the characters and their relationship to this new language. Coco doesn't usually communicate in any colonial language and their mouth doesn’t usually move, so it was an exercise for the characters and a way for me to think about them differently. Fatimeh was even presented differently in this work, so the project allowed me to experiment with character development and script in an exciting way and with new tools.
ML: Before you started this video, you shared with the co-op the Xenofuturist Manifesto, as something you are exploring in your current work, created for your newest character, Coco. It is based around five prompts: 1) Liminal Melancholy, 2) Disidentification, 3) Expanding Geographical Imagination, 4) New Language, 5) Limbo Logic. Readers can go to the full manifesto here. How did this all come into being, and what are you hoping to do with it?
RE: The Manifesto, and I use that term loosely, advanced from my research in archives and collections as part of the
Arts Fellowship, which I did in 2019. It was a five-month fellowship researching archives and collections in Amsterdam, Germany, Canada and America, looking at work of ethnic futurist artists. One thing I realized was that a lot of the works uphold and maintain an ideology centered around belonging to a nation. Xenofuturism is my answer to this – an anti-nationalist futurist proposal – a set of innovative and performative tools that may lead to a sense of space and futurity outside of nationalism.
AI Landscape: Prompt III, Lightbox, 25x40 inches, 2020
ML: What led you to work with AI as a tool for generating content?
RE: I have been interested in AI for a few years now. I often attend lectures at the University of Toronto and the Center of Ethics that focus on AI, and have been interested in how I can incorporate it into my practice. I recently reached out to a Canadian artist who works with AI, and learned more about his practice and how he's using it to create abstract landscape paintings, and then I had several intensive sessions with a programmer who taught me about the process of training AI and datasets. With the programmer, I got to explore the potential of AI in my practice, and how I could collaborate with existing open source tools.
ML: How did you use AI in your video for Temp Files?
RE: First, I developed the questions that I wrote in the GP2 transformer. It’s a collaborative text that you create with a trained AI. I ask it questions and it gives me two possible answers. Each answer is a part of a sentence, so for example, if I ask it “what is nationalism,” it'll say something abstract, like “nationalism is fire,” “nationalism is purity,” or I could pick the other example, “nationalism is a political movement.” Then you can generate a longer text with abstract pieces and it becomes a collaboration between you and the machine because you're giving it a prompt, and it’s responding to it. So, together we generated the text for the script!
ML: So, these prompts you were feeding the AI were the actual questions you are asking the characters in the video?
RE: Yes, exactly. And the result is a paragraph script for each of the characters. I took these paragraphs, and with Oreo – I performed it, so I actually read her script with an augmented reality face app fire effect. With Fatimeh, I used an Adobe program preset character, mostly because of lack of resources and time, and the conditions of working in the pandemic, so I have just been working with whatever I could find online that is free and what I had access to. In an ideal world and time, I’d perhaps create a new character for her. For Coco, I found another open-source AI software that’s called Rosebud TokkingHeads. With this program, you provide an image and a text to the AI, and it merges the two and animates the image. You can select a voice from a range of synthetic computer generated voices. It is cool because it uses AI in a very different way, so I used one text-to-text AI generator, one text-to-image and voice generator, and combined them for this project.
ML: Would you say your experiment with AI was successful?
RE: I feel like it has been very successful, just because it allowed me to think about my work differently and to explore poetics of the technology – something that I otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to do. Also, I found that the conversation it generated with the group, sharing and reflecting on these ideas, has been a super helpful exchange.
ML: I understand that Fatimeh, though she appears differently in this video, was the first character you created and is closely tied to your own identity as a member of the Iranian diaspora. What role has Fatimeh played in your exploration of nationalism and other isms, and how did she lead to the birth of Oreo and Coco?
RE: I created this character while still in undergrad, so nearly a decade ago! With this character, I started to use camp aesthetics and humor to explore stereotypes, neo-orientalism, and self-exoticization. Oreo emerged out of Fatimeh, but Fatimeh addresses Iranian nationalism and its self-romanticizing tendencies, whether that's performed through language, gesture, cultural garments, song, and voice. Oreo’s nationalism is performed through network technology and language, like hashtags and other coded language in nationalist discourse, used by white supremacists mostly in the Western world, whereas Fatimeh explores nationalism in the East, in a more romantic way. Fatimeh’s critique of nationalism is often overlooked in the West because it's so readable and consumable and a representation that the West expects ethnic artists to perform. Whereas with Oreo, the performance of nationalism is much more blatant, and it's the kind of nationalism that makes us uncomfortable, Fatimeh’s nationalist performance is romantic and seductive. Coco is anti-nationalist, giving more of a post-colonial critique. Coco is my anti-nationalist character.
ML: Will you please tell us more about Coco?
RE: Coco is the character I identify with the most because they are a hybrid character. Coco refuses to participate in any colonial languages, which is why this new video is different for the character because they are now speaking. Coco only communicates through gestures and dance, and uses digital manipulation as a form of communication unique to the character. Coco is often a hologram that travels between multiple channels, explodes and disperses, and is even omnipresent in my immersive video installations. While the other two characters are frozen to the screen and limited in their ability to travel through time and space, Coco has this ability and that is exciting.
ML: You mentioned the dance style of waacking. What is waacking, and how is it used with Coco?
RE: I have always been interested in urban dance styles and have been a part of the waacking community for several years now. Waacking is a dance style that emerged in LA in the 1970’s and is sometimes confused with vogue, but it has a different vocabulary, movement, and music. Waacking is danced to disco and consists of rapid arm gestures and Hollywood-style poses and theatrics. Waacking was introduced by a diasporic, queer community. The dance style is very hybrid and resonates across cultures, so that’s what I love about it. Coco further hybridizes it through accentuated wrist rolls which is seen in Persian dancing. I merge those two styles together to create a unique gestural language for the character.
ML: Do you feel like it's a little bit of a betrayal to have the character of Coco speak in this new video you created with Temp Files, since Coco’s MO is to not communicate with words?
RE: I don't know how I feel about having the character speak. I am uncomfortable with it, but this is an experiment, you know, so why not? I've been developing another film script, and I was wondering how I could get Coco to speak, what would Coco’s voice be like? Gestural language is ambiguous, and Coco sometimes has a very clear message, so how do I get a literal message across through movement? I’m still working through this, perhaps Coco dances, and the movement is accompanied with subtitles or some sort of computer-generated audio overlayed on the soundtrack? But yeah, lips moving is not what I had originally intended for the character. I did it in this video because I wanted to try the TokkingHead Rosebud software, and it doesn't really suit any of the characters. I usually perform all of the characters, and I’m not even performing Fatimeh, so this was really just an experiment to see how they could take on a different form, or if they could take on a different form. I don’t know yet. That’s a good question, because I am conflicted!
ML: So, as an artist working with performance myself, I'm very curious to know what prompted you to start working performatively with alter-ego characters? Were there traces of this kind of invention in the earlier parts of your life that led you to Fatimeh and then the others?
RE: As far as I can remember, even when I was a little girl, I loved playing dress-up and different characters. I would put on my mom's makeup, and put on talent and acting shows. But later, in my twenties, I paid my way through university working at gay clubs. I was a bartender, and I did a lot of drag, burlesque and gender-fuck performances, for example for charity to raise funds for the sexual assault center that was in my community, but I also was surrounded by a lot of drag performers and that really found its way into my practice, the camp aesthetics. It’s very queer, which, obviously that is something I am comfortable with. I never considered myself a queer artist, I always considered myself a feminist or anti-racist artist rather than a queer artist, but more and more, I see that my work is actually quite queer, especially because it is so inspired by drag.
Caption: Rah, SuperNova, Two-Channel Video and LED Installation, articule, Montreal, 2020
ML: Who are some of your early influences and models for performing characters?
RE: I’d say, for example, Leigh Bowery, to the extent that in one of my films I pay homage to them. But also, obviously Vaginal Davis, Howardena Pindell, and Ana Mendieta, as well as the great Claude Cahun, and many great feminist artists who came before our time that took to masquerade and performance to challenge issues of representation.
ML: You have already mentioned how camp aesthetic is a big part of your work. How do you see humor and play as tools to convey politically charged subjects?
RE: My use of humor has always been strategic, because I think of it as a tool to seduce people and bring them into a conversation that is cloaked in entertainment. It's a tool for marginal artists to shift the power relations because now you are in the authoritative position and the one who tells the joke, rather than being the butt of the joke. It’s about reclamation and that shift is important. Through humor, I’m able to expose the ludicrousness of racial stereotypes. Someone like Oreo exposes and even challenges the audience member who is maintaining these nationalist ideologies and ideas of white supremacy. Some think humor to be reductive and offensive, but you hear this often, people who have been through a lot of hardship, they often look to humor for some relief or to talk about difficult issues. I remember growing up as a kid, you know, in a family of refugees and working-class folk, at times when life was so unpredictable and with precarious living conditions, there was always room for jokes. There’s always room to laugh. I come from a family that loves to laugh. Personally, for me, humor has always been a great way of getting through tough situations in life. But it's not something everyone appreciates, especially my activist community. I think a lot of them don't see how humor could be as subversive, or they don't appreciate their trauma being made fun of, and that's a valid argument, but it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. We all have our different ways of responding to and engaging with the world.
ML: Okay you answered this a little bit already, but how did working in conversation with the other Temp Files artist inform your process and what was most valuable to you about the experience? Were there any surprises?
RE: I love networking and exchange – any opportunity to have artists (especially women) in a space together, to me it feels, I don't know, it's like my ideal space, you know? Not to say that I’m a separatist feminist lesbian, but I could be! (laughter) I honestly just love being in the coop, and I'm happy to be sharing knowledge and work, and it doesn't feel like a space where anyone expects you in the middle of Covid to produce your best work. It's just like, let’s experiment and let’s talk. It’s a moment to connect with like-minded folks. And it’s during, probably one of the hardest moments of our lives, so I just appreciate being offered a community right now at a time where I feel very alone and isolated. I think that's the most valuable thing about this experience. No surprises really, I'm not surprised that everyone is so thoughtful, not that I expected it, but you know, everyone in the group is professional. We’re all at a level where we are able to discuss our work and show support. A nice outcome would be for us all to continue these relationships, and actually get to meet in person one day.
ML: Yes! This is just the beginning, but it would be really great to see this lead to ongoing relationships and bigger developments in the future.
RE: I really think it helps that it’s eight months of bi-weekly meetings. That is how you build and nourish a community. It’s not just a one-week drop in on a panel, you’re establishing relationships. I hope it continues, and I think it probably will lead to something great.
ML: I had just had another small question, but as the first person to go, you're like the guinea pig. How did it feel?
RE: Not that I felt the pressure to set the course for everyone, but yeah, we are experimenting which requires me to be super flexible. Being the first to go is always a little bit like, I hope I don't disappoint anyone with the work, but everyone's been so supportive that I don't feel like I need to show up and perform. I can just be myself, you know, show up in my pajamas. It’s pretty sweet. It hasn’t been so stressful, and overall, happy to be the first to go and to contribute in any way I can.
ML: So, the final question: what are you working on now or what's next?
RE: Right now, I'm really focusing on teaching because I just got a new course, which is exciting. Project wise, I am working on a series of light boxes, exploring Coco through still images to see if I isolate the gestures, how would that change their language? I am using AI here as well – an open-source text-to-image generator. I feed the AI prompts from the Xenofuturist Manifesto which are a bit heavy and abstract at the same time (i.e. liminal melancholy), and the AI doesn't understand them, but it spits out illegible images of random pixels, which I am then turning into landscapes for the character. I have been doing these experiments for months, and I have one image that I keep going back to because I think it's doing exactly what I wanted. I started this series because I was exploring Coco’s relationship to light – using and thinking about light as an extension of gesture and language. That's why I want to backlight the images, and also to enhance the futuristic aesthetic. They can look like little floating space crafts. That could be super cool.