A Space in Pittsburgh that Transports Visitors to Tehran and Vice Versa

What does it mean for two international artists to collaborate if their countries have fraught relationships, like Iran and the US? Jon Rubin, based in Pittsburgh, and Sohrab Kashani, based in Tehran, have a history of creating artworks that challenge social impasses and connect people across cultures. In the Creative Capital Project, The Other Apartment, the two artists worked from detailed photographs taken by Kashani—who is not able to travel to the US due to the current travel ban—to meticulously recreate his Tehran apartment and all of his personal possessions at the Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh. Kashani has used his apartment in Tehran as a space for exhibiting contemporary art and as an artist residency. From September 2019 through July 2020, Kashani and Rubin will operate the two spaces as one in The Other Apartment—producing exhibitions, programs, and events where every object, video, and performance that happens in one space is reproduced for the other, keeping both apartments identical across the 6,300 miles that separate them.

We spoke to Rubin and Kashani through a series of emails ahead of the premiere of their project.

Alex Teplitzky—Can you describe the project?

Jon and Sohrab—The Other Apartment is a project that occurs in two sites simultaneously: an apartment in Tehran, Iran, where Sohrab lives, and an exact replica of that apartment and all of its contents, at the Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh (the city where Jon lives). Using detailed photographs from Sohrab (who is not able to travel to the U.S. due to the current travel ban on Iranian citizens), we worked with a team of fabricators to meticulously recreate his Tehran apartment’s facade, interior architecture, and all of his personal possessions. From his soap dish to his furniture, everything in The Other Apartment has been purchased, altered, or entirely fabricated to replicate what exists in Sohrab’s apartment.

For the past 11 years, Sohrab has used space in his apartment for the running of a contemporary art venue and artist residency program, one of the first of its kind in the country. For the nine months The Other Apartment is installed, we will operate this art venue together, producing exhibitions, programs, and events where every object, video, and performance that happens in one space is meticulously duplicated for the other, keeping both apartments identical across the 6,300 miles that separate us.

For us, The Other Apartment functions as a series of theoretical and practical questions within the sad absurdity of our current political condition. What if there was more than one absolute reality? What if we applied theories of quantum mechanics to real life so that you could be in the same space, and in different countries, at the same time? Can you build a reality that functions as a loophole around national borders and economic sanctions? What happens when you put an arts institution in a domestic space inside another art institution? What if you took someone else’s life so seriously that you duplicate it? What gets lost and gained in that act of duplication?

The length we are going to to replicate hundreds of Sohrab’s possessions and the close attention we are paying to the architecture and details of the built rooms functions as a radical act of empathy.

Alex—How did you two start working together?

Jon and Sohrab—We met about twelve years ago through an art project Jon was doing, and have worked on several performances and events since. We’ve been thinking about this project for at least six years. We originally thought we were going to make a sci-fi sitcom together (we still might), based on a family that lives in an apartment located both in Iran and the US. The project called for building the same exact set in both countries and as we started to talk it through, we realized we could take this premise outside of the world of fiction and place it into our own lives.

Sohrab hasn’t been able to travel to the US because of the travel ban so, in many ways, the project has become the simplest way for us to hang out and work together.

Alex—My knowledge of Iran and contemporary life there is based on second-hand knowledge of Iranian refugees and second generation Iranians in Europe and the US. Art and news comes to us slowly—and I imagine it’s the same for others here. Instead, we in the US are forced to see a picture framed by the news, media, and US politicians. The concept of an apartment that exists both in the US and Iran would break down that barrier. How exactly do you foresee this playing out?

Jon and Sohrab—The project quite literally transgresses certain barriers by bringing an entire space from Iran into the US. The length we are going to to replicate hundreds of Sohrab’s possessions and the close attention we are paying to the architecture and details of the built rooms functions as a radical act of empathy. So, just this act of conjuring and displacement is an important one to us.

The second part is the daily operation of the art space in the apartment, this is our opportunity to work together with artists and thinkers in both Iran and the U.S. and have the work they do equally shared in both venues at the same time.

Alex—Can you tell me more about the history of Sohrab’s artspace and artist residency? I’m always curious to learn what challenges artists face in different countries, so what are the challenges specific to Iran? How has the artspace in Tehran proved successful, and what do you hope to communicate to the US-contingent, especially as it relates to other artists that will visit the space?

Sohrab—The artspace, called Sazmanab, started in 2008, the same year Jon and I first met to collaborate on a previous inter-country project. I had moved into an apartment on Sazman-e ab street across from the City’s Department of Water (the English translation of Sazmanab in Farsi). The initiative came out of the urgency I felt to create a place that didn’t exist in the country at the time: a truly independent, international, and experimental curatorial space for Iranian artists to connect with each other and the larger art world outside of Iran. Initially, I called the space Sazmanab, in reference to the Department of Water. I liked the idea of a department that oversees a fluid that is constantly on the move. It’s a great metaphor for the creation of an artspace that wants to defy simple definition or location, allowing for the most artistic freedom. My desire was to explore a space that had none of the constraints and structures of a traditional venue, a space whose identity could change and evolve over time.

Apart from a few privately-owned commercial galleries, the state-run museum of contemporary art, and other state-run galleries in Tehran, back in that time, there were very few spaces in Tehran meant for artistic experimentation and collaboration. Funding Sazmanab over the years proved to be a monumental task—there was no government support or private foundations that would support the type of work I did at Sazmanab. I soon started accepting freelance graphic and web design assignments to pay for Sazmanab’s running costs. During the daytime, Sazmanab was a fully functioning art space and at night it was my home where I lived, worked, and held parties with my friends.

Image from The Other Apartment by Sohrab Kashani and Jon Rubin, 2019. Photo at left by Siavash Naghshbandi, Tehran; Photo at right by Tom Little, Pittsburgh.

In 2009, Sazmanab expanded into a fully functioning project space where a variety of events and activities were held in collaboration with local and international artists and curators. Since its founding in 2008, Sazmanab has continued to focus on relationships with other institutions, museums, galleries, and practitioners outside Iran. To accomplish this, Sazmanab has often relied on its use of the internet and online communication tools such as Skype, which from 2008 to 2010 (and before starting the Sazmanab residency program) served as its principal means of communicating with institutions and practitioners outside Iran. Shortly after Sazmanab’s renovations in 2010, Sazmanab began its residency program. Sazmanab was the first open-call residency program in Tehran. While some resident artists were housed in the apartment where Sazmanab was located, other resident artists were provided with living and working space in other areas of Tehran. Since 2010, Sazmanab has hosted more than thirty artists and curators in residence. In early 2014, Sazmanab began the relocation process to an old building on Khaghani street near Darvaze Dolat in downtown Tehran.

Most of Sazmanab’s exhibition openings and events were streamed live and were accessible through Sazmanab’s website. Viewers were able to chat and comment online as broadcast happened. At other times and when there was no programming at Sazmanab, the live-stream would feature me at my apartment living and working out of my bedroom/office of Sazmanab.

Over the years, Sazmanab has been located in three main locations in west and downtown Tehran and has also held some of its program off-site in collaboration with other artspaces and venues. Since 2008, As Sazmanab I have set up more than a hundred events and exhibitions at Sazmanab’s main venues and in off-site locations. Events included talks, presentations, lectures, workshops, performances, screenings, book launches, and audio/visual performances.

For the run of The Other Apartment, we will be calling the space Sazmanab – Water Department in a nod to the two versions of the same venue.

The US sanctions against Iran that refers to economic, trade, scientific, and military sanctions has had an adverse effect on Iranians over the years. The impact it has had on Iran’s art community has included travel, shipping artworks, and scarcity of some materials used in creating artworks. As the sanctions take their toll on our economy, it becomes much more expensive to travel, take part in exhibitions abroad, and to create new artwork. This spells more compromises for artists and other art practitioners in Iran; they would have to take on certain assignments and work with entities they would normally not collaborate with to make ends meet.

Alex—Do you think this project is only possible because of contemporary technologies you are using, like 3D printers or Skype? On the other hand, there is a tradition of virtual space moving ideas across geography in art history—even before the Renaissance. How do you hope people in the US will experience this virtuality, and how will they experience it in Iran?

Jon and Sohrab—There are a lot of virtual ways to connect to each other these days and both of us have produced projects that have used technology to connect Americans and Iranians with each other. But for us, in this project, it was very important that viewers have a very real, tangible, and physical experience of place and displacement.

There are unique challenges for how the work will be experienced in each site. In Iran, people will be walking into an actual apartment, without the context of a museum, and we will need to let them know that everything they see is entirely replicated in Pittsburgh. There will be various methods to communicate this including didactic text, a catalog that shows the replicated rooms and objects of the other apartment and a project website that will make people aware of the central premise of The Other Apartment and the logistics behind its production. In Pittsburgh we have the advantage of the frame of art that a museum provides. It’s interesting how the apartment is quite ordinary at first glance, its rooms filled with the normal stuff of everyday life. Our hope is that once the premise is known to a viewer in Iran or Pittsburgh, they will see the uncanny quality of the objects and apartment that surrounds them, a place where everything is both real and fake at the same time. In the end, we see The Other Apartment as a third space, a place that hovers between two specific cultural conditions, both familiar and destabilizing to each.

Alex—Has Creative Capital been helpful in developing this project at all?

Jon and Sohrab—Certainly the project could not have happened without the support from Creative Capital. Having the Creative Capital approval and funding made it quite easy to approach institutions for additional support.

Read more about the exhibition featuring The Other Apartment, now on view at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, PA, open September 27.