On February 3, I gathered with a small group of friends at Visitor Welcome Center for a conversation on the occasion of the closing of my exhibition, LIKELY MINE. The new series of photographs in the exhibition came out of thinking about regimes of legibility in relation to different technologies of image-making, specifically in the context of surveillance and security. The X-ray machine at an airport translates objects to images to enable the human eye to identify — based on prior training — what might be a threat to the security of the collective traveling body. But the meaning of objects in the context of security is contingent upon the bodies of the subjects they belong to. Through the project, I was tracing the different instances where my body and belongings were exposed to X-ray through international travel, as photographic moments.
Using photography was an attempt to imagine the “eye” in the collaboration between the visible apparatuses of surveillance — such as the (X-ray) machine and the human (TSA) agent — with larger, less visible, but more violent surveillance mechanisms like “behavior protection” officers, DHS data, and algorithms. In search of the eye of the machine, I began with a desire to fulfill its aesthetic pleasure: What if I had authorship over the meanings generated by what the machine could capture in my belongings in association with my Iranian passport? What if I collaborated with the X-ray machine, where I would select and arrange the objects and the machine would take the photographs?
LIKELY MINE, color, no sound, 9 min, 2020. iPhone video shot through the X-Ray tunnel at an airport.
I shot these speculative, collaborative photos in the studio on rolls of film I had traveled with to an overseas residency. I came back home to Los Angeles in December with more or less the same set of objects I had departed with — both my body and belongings seemingly unscathed. As for the material evidence of exposure to X-ray, there were bright pixels in a few frames of video shot on my iPhone through the darkness of multiple X-ray tunnels, and rolls of damaged 16mm film. While I was in the studio back in L.A. — making final decisions about the presentation of this body of work and the absurdity of these violent surveillance regimes of translation between bodies, objects, and images — a virus was border-crossing with the ease of a white male American flying first class. The theater of surveillance continued its operation at different airports around the world in complete oblivion of a potentially deadly agent of disease, an agent its state-of-the-art screening technologies could not detect.
I took my exhibition’s title, LIKELY MINE, from a PowerPoint slide released by the US Navy on June 13, 2019, allegedly showing an Iranian limpet mine on the hull of the Kokuka Courageous vessel in the Gulf of Oman. Two red arrows on an image of the tanker point in opposite directions to two spots on the draft, reading “Likely Mine” and “Damage.” As tensions arose in the Persian Gulf in summer 2019, Iran had already been hit by a different form of warfare: debilitating US sanctions. By the time we gathered together in the gallery in Los Angeles, Iran was preparing for its first wave of COVID-19 infections with a medical sector already devastated by a shortage of medicine and medical equipment. Since May 2019, aluminum, iron, silver, and copper — among other industries — were under US sanctions.
A month after sitting mask-less and socially intimate in the gallery, echoing my concern about the situation in Iran, the virus wreaked havoc here in the United States. Between regional quarantine measures and the limitations on travel, a new sense of locality emerged. For the privileged, there was (and still is) almost as much possibility to move around the world freely as for a stateless person. We learned no passport can save you from a virus that has no respect for arbitrary nation-state delineations, fortified concrete wall borders, or a military trained through endless simulated battles and prepared to defeat the “foreign” enemy. The airport surveillance apparatus had no algorithms to detect the harmful agent that was freely traveling across the globe.
The pandemic only further exposed the faltering foundations on which the myth of US democracy was based. There was no surprise in witnessing how COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting poor, Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities — it continues to do so. We slowed down, quarantined, made sourdough bread; penguins roamed around shut aquariums reckoning with the violence of their site of spectacularization; we moved our entire jobs or education online, went on rent strike, grew more vegetables; we witnessed the horrendous, continued murder of Black people at the hands of the police, read about the universal right to breathe, took to the streets, chanted, self-quarantined; we saw tanks and the army on the streets of our neighborhoods, saw a university stadium named after a Black athlete used for processing the arrests of Black Lives Matter protestors during curfew; saw toppling statues, monumental emblems of fundamental and ongoing violence, and tons of wood going to waste to protect property; saw statement after statement from good, better, worse, and racist institutions expressing solidarity for the movement to protect the lives of those they have undermined; we went back on the streets again, quarantined, rinsed, repeat, navigating the despair and confusion with the generous voices of those whose words have always lit the way in (re)writing the narrative of this world and its end.
It might be true that this extended moment of crisis presents an immense opportunity for the emerging (non)human to reestablish its relationship with the graveyard of the planet it inhabits. Back in April, Arundhati Roy likened the virus to a portal. Of course, we can’t be naïve: we have witnessed how previous crises have given way to more authoritarian governance, more militarized policing, more violence for racialized bodies, more money for the rich and extreme poverty for the poor and working class. “[C]apital is remarkably resilient in the face of crisis, even successive ones,” Laleh Khalili reminds us. Crisis time is not work time, but there is a job to be done: to dream and make plans for their coming true. Once this crisis is over, there will be another one, there will always be survival under austerity, an unsettling readjustment to a strange form of life once familiar, and our automatic response to trauma: amnesia.
In Persian there is a euphemism for when somebody falls ill, particularly a person making a fuss about something small: like Nimrod, they have been “kicked by a mosquito.” It took a single cell organism to travel across all of our borders — between bodies, nations, and other ways we have agreed to organize and isolate our worlds — to recognize we are neither alone or sovereign beings. We are interdependent with all forms of life and non-life — here in hell and elsewhere in heaven:
“Mars is a rock — cold, empty, almost airless, dead. Yet it’s heaven in a way. We can see it in the night sky, a whole other world, but too nearby, too close within the reach of the people who’ve made such a hell of life here on Earth.” —Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
Gelare Khoshgozaran is an undisciplinary artist and writer who, in 2009, was transplanted from street protests in a city of four seasons to the windowless rooms of the University of Southern California where aesthetics and politics were discussed in endless summers.