What if you could be transported into another person’s lived experience just by visiting their home?
Two artists—one in Pittsburgh, one in Tehran—are putting this idea to the test with The Other Apartment, an ambitious installation that uses the intimacy of one person’s home to bridge the vast geographic, cultural, and political divides between the United States and Iran.
The apartment belongs to Iranian artist and curator Sohrab Kashani. For 11 years, his home in Tehran has doubled as a DIY venue for exhibiting and discussing contemporary art, one of the few such spaces that exists in his country. He and Carnegie Mellon University art professor Jon Rubin have recreated his flat in minute detail inside Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory Art Museum.
“As friends living inside two countries in conflict with each other, our lack of power and agency is maddening sometimes,” Kashani says. “So we decided we would create a world for ourselves where everything that was a limit would become a possibility, and every political obstacle would become a creative opportunity.”
Over four months this year, the artists worked with a team of fabricators to meticulously recreate Kashani’s Tehran flat, from the wrought iron facade to its distinctive interior spaces to a range of unique personal effects. Visitors to the Pittsburgh locale get to know Kashani through his common household items like a well-worn rug, a favorite art poster, and a shared table, all carefully arranged to match what visitors see and experience when they walk into the counterpart home more than 6,300 miles away in Tehran. Kashani’s furniture has been recreated by hand, including an office bookcase that holds scans of every book he owns. This laborious recreation included scaling the apartment down by two feet to fit into the museum, and reproducing the appearance of its cement and terrazzo floors.
The cumulative effect is a wholesale transportation into a place that few Americans ever experience or try to understand. Achieving this by way of a person’s home brings a sense of intimacy and urgency to the project. Every domestic space functions as an informal portrait of its occupant, and you can learn a lot about Kashani just by walking through his apartment: He loves Superman, smokes cigarettes, owns a small piece of the Berlin Wall, and reads English and Farsi books about art, philosophy, and science fiction.
Pulling this off anywhere would be difficult enough, but The Other Apartment faced an additional hurdle. Kashani, as an Iranian citizen, is unable to travel to the United States due to President Donald Trump’s 2017 travel ban. Rubin has never been to Kashani’s apartment in Tehran, so the pair had to coordinate their work entirely through photographs, sketches, spreadsheets, and video-chat sessions.
Over the next eight months, the artists will keep both spaces identical—producing exhibitions, programs, and events where every object, video, and performance is perfectly in sync. Currently, the dual spaces host Voice Over (In Three Parts), a single-channel video work by six artists, including Alex Da Corte (U.S.A.), Siavash Naghshbandi (Iran), and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz (Puerto Rico), linked by the use of “extra-diegetic audio” into one omniscient stream, on view through January 10th. “In these videos, the voice-over has been reimagined as a vehicle for interpretation and reflection, questions and provocations,” say the curators on Sazmanab’s website. “The speaker, who is heard as voice-over, is never seen, and the language is suggestive of a complex and at times abstract inner world.”
The project began with the concept of an American-style TV show. Rubin and Kashani were raised on the same American sitcoms and suspected that, despite growing up in different countries and eras, this format could bridge their cultural divide.
The pair met through a mutual friend and eventually started working together on a project in Cleveland, Ohio, called The Foreigner, where Cleveland residents functioned as real-time avatars for Iranians overseas, each Clevelander was connected live to an Iranian citizen and encouraged to move, act, and speak by way of the other’s commands. The project was enthusiastically embraced by locals, and the two continued to work together on Conflict Kitchen, a local restaurant-cum-art-project Rubin has co-run since 2010 that serves cuisine from countries in which the United States is in conflict, rotating every three to five months. The project, which was launched with Iranian food during the country’s presidential election of 2013, has gone on to present the cuisines of Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, and Palestine, among others. The project has been a huge success, attracting thousands of visitors and hosting related educational programming, including film screenings and trivia nights, organized with the assistance of the local immigrant population.
For this latest project, Rubin hopes to again bridge cultures, offering the rare opportunity for Americans and Iranians to “visit” with each other, via a series of simultaneous events and workshops which are frequently broadcast via Skype.
In many ways, Pittsburgh is a fitting location for The Other Apartment to explore the impact of cross-cultural exchange. Once the “Steel Capital of America,” the city saw its industries and population decline by 50 percent in the 20th century, but has rebounded in recent years with a bustling technology sector focused on robotics, health care, green energy, and biomedical research. A vibrant immigrant population has helped rejuvenate the city’s aging demographics, and the city has a long history as a haven for immigrants and refugees. That includes immigrants from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s and the resettlement of Somalis in the ’90s, to the more recent growth of Latino and Asian communities. According to the Pittsburgh tourism board, over 50 percent of new immigrants come for higher education and healthcare opportunities.
“The Other Apartment conjures up a different world for everyone,” says Golnar Touski, a University of Pittsburgh doctoral student of history of art and architecture, and a visiting Iranian citizen who worked on translations for the project. “To the American, it’s a reminder of her kinship with other worlds and spaces. To the diasporic Iranian, it’s an astral projection to home. To the Iranian, it’s a reflection of her own in a faraway mirror.”
So far, the team has found the public response to be both encouraging and unusual. “When we launched the project, we were concerned that, with so many small possessions in the apartment, people might steal things,” said Rubin, but the opposite actually occurred. “People have been leaving things, sometimes very intentionally.” This has included a demo cassette tape with photocopied cover art, which inspired the creators to invite musicians in both Pittsburgh and Tehran to visit and perform cover versions.
“We will be filming their performances in different rooms and presenting them in both versions of the apartment as an exhibition,” says Rubin. The colleagues say they particularly enjoy the way the project now functions as a platform—something left or placed in one space may now materialize in a slightly or radically altered form in the other. “It seems to us an endless series of both casual and intentional loops can be carried out within this new reality we’ve set in motion.”
The Other Apartment Pittsburgh is on view from September 2019-July 2020.
Mattress Factory Museum
500 Sampsonia Way
September 27, 2019 – July 2020
Museum of Sohrab
By appointment only