CCA Faculty Brian Conley Delves into the Iraqi Contemporary Art Scene

Brian Conley, Miniature War in Iraq . . . and Now Afghanistan, 2010

Fine Arts faculty member Brian Conley spent part of his fall 2011 sabbatical in the Middle East assisting in the launch of a new nonprofit organization, Sada (Echo) for Contemporary Iraqi Art. Sada was founded just last year by the Baghdad-born curator and Fulbright fellow Rijin Sahakian, who saw a critical need for support in the creation, presentation, and preservation of contemporary art in Iraq.

One of the central features of Sada's multifaceted programming involves making available to students in Baghdad online workshops taught by artists of Middle Eastern origin who now live and work in other cities around the world. Sada's classroom interface -- which allows students aged 17 to 30 to upload their own work, view work by teaching artists, and listen to the artists' lectures and ask questions in real time -- was designed by Binta Ayofemi, also a CCA Fine Arts faculty member.

"Sada is still being developed, but we're happy to report that the first semester of classes was a success," Conley reports. "We've confirmed that the technology works: the platform is sufficient to conduct real conversations and has been functioning beautifully. Right now Rijin is back in Iraq meeting with students, talking about how this first sequence of workshops unfolded, and thinking about the next semester. In October 2011 we traveled together for a month, first to Amman, Jordan, where we worked face-to-face with our web development team. We also went to Beirut to meet with artists, curators, and arts administrators, including Christine Tohme, who runs Ashkal Alwan, a regional center for conversations among artists, cultural practitioners, writers, and thinkers who are interested in the development of the arts in the Middle East. I was interested in particular to see their new post-MFA school and residency program, which was directed this year by the artist Emily Jacir. We ended our trip in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, for a benefit auction at Christie's. Several artists who are working with Sada, such as Wafaa Bilal, Jananne Al-Ani, and Ahmed Alsoudani, donated pieces. It was wonderful to see nearly all of the work sell, since these funds will provide crucial support for the upcoming year."

Sada is currently based at the Iraqi Independent Film Center, located on Baghdad's storied Al-Rasheed Street, an avenue of mansions overlooking the river Tigris. The Film Center was founded after the initial U.S. invasion, and -- amazingly -- kept its doors open through the war, maintaining a small yet dedicated student body. Sada's ambitious intent to link artists of the Iraqi diaspora to young people making art in Baghdad has thus already found a congenial partner to host the virtual classroom at a multiuse physical site.

As Conley describes it, Sada's mission is threefold. The education program -- his area of expertise -- works to connect emerging local artists to internationally established artists who are originally from the region in order to spark critical dialogue about current art practices and provide a conduit for information to young cultural producers who would otherwise be gravely isolated. A second aspect, the documentation and research program, seeks to establish an archive and database of information on modern and contemporary Iraqi art for the use of artists, curators, and scholars both inside the country and internationally.

The exhibitions and public programs -- the third wing of the project -- are also fully operational. Last summer, Sada was involved in the organization of the Iraq Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the country's first Venice presentation in 35 years. There, Sada sponsored a panel titled "A Fluid Resistance" to discuss artistic and scientific practices as nurturers of social resilience. The pavilion also presented a commissioned film by the Iraqi director Oday Rasheed, Tigris (and other bodies of work) (2010), which considers art making in Iraq through the eyes of three young artists who live there. Rijin Sahakian has presented Sada at the Sharjah Biennial and the Royal College of Art in London. She is currently in residence at the Darat al Funun Foundation in Amman, and will participate in this year's Art Dubai fair.

The education program has already presented powerful international talent. The first workshop was led by Wafaa Bilal, who fled Iraq in 1991. Now based in New York, Bilal gained widespread attention for his performance . . . and Counting (2010), in which his own back was tattooed with thousands of dots representing American and Iraqi casualties. Sada's second course was taught by Sundus Abdul Hadi, an Iraqi artist living in Canada. The third instructor in the introductory semester, Jalal Toufic, is a Lebanese/Iraqi experimental writer living in Berlin. Upcoming classes will be offered by Tamara Abdul Hadi, Adel Abidin, Dena Al Adeeb, and Sinan Antoon.

Conley's interest in educational issues as they relate to art production in the Middle East dates back to 2005, when he was lured from New York to CCA to serve as chair of the Graduate Program in Fine Arts. "I was particularly involved with Middle Eastern students who had come to San Francisco to study," he explains. "I was concerned about them feeling comfortable in our program, so I helped them organize into an interdisciplinary conversational or working group called Aleph, which is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. At that time, the group had students from Egypt, Palestine, Iran, and Lebanon. We met for two years, discussing the nature and problems of politically inflected artwork, what it was like for these artists to be in the U.S., and how difficult it was for them -- and for me as well -- to witness what was happening in the Middle East, particularly given Americans' general ignorance of the region's realities."

These informal conversations inspired all involved to envision a considerably more ambitious structure, through which artists from the Middle East could interface with American arts institutions. "The Aleph group recognized a need for more than just conversation," Conley recalls. "I wanted to implement their vision if I could, so I began to make plans to establish a residency for Middle Eastern artists -- a program that would assist them in finding venues and support for their work in this country, and at the same time give the American art world and even the American public at large an opportunity to understand directly, from people coming from Arabic-speaking countries, some of the urgent cultural and political questions at stake."

Conley's plan would have placed artists in residence with partner institutions in New York, Chicago, and either San Francisco or Los Angeles. To address the fledgling program's logistical and administrative issues, he turned to Sahakian. As a curator and arts administrator with both professional and familial ties to Iraq, she was a perfect collaborator for the Aleph project in the early planning stages. But the global economic crisis intervened. "We wrote a proposal for the Ford Foundation, and I made several trips to Cairo to discuss funding with the program office for what's known as the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region," Conley remembers. "It was looking very promising. Then the recession hit in 2008, and our project was dropped."

That setback was not the end of the story, however. "I felt in 2008 -- and I still do -- that it's important to act on bold ideas, to pursue them even if there's a good chance of failure," Conley continues. "Proposing ambitious ideas sets up an energy field that creates other ideas and draws people to you. And that's what happened with Sada." With the residency project indefinitely on hold, Sahakian was developing her own paradigm -- Sada (Echo) for Contemporary Iraqi Art. This time, it was Sahakian who asked Conley to collaborate. Funding was secured from the Hivos Foundation in the Netherlands, and Sada was born in fall 2011.

Sada is a brand-new phenomenon in Middle Eastern arts education, but collaborative endeavors and institutional interventions have always been central to Conley's practice as an artist. Drawing from an eclectic background that spans sculpture and performance, installation and photography, analytic philosophy and behavioral science, Conley's work is centrally concerned with the roots of social violence, the origins of language, and the possibility of meaningful communication even across radical divides, like that between human and animal, or human and machine. His classes at CCA explore innovative, group-based pedagogical models, inciting students to consider in fresh ways their motivations for studying the arts.

His project Decipherment of Linear X (2008), for example, examines a strange set of morphological similarities observable between marks made by bark-boring beetles and Linear B, one of the earliest known written languages. Pseudanuran Gigantica (2001) is an enormous, interactive mechanical creature, designed in collaboration with scientists specializing in the mating habits of the rare Tungara frog. Conley's institutionally based projects include the international art and culture quarterly Cabinet, which he cofounded with Sina Najafi in 1999. Cabinet's first collateral project, undertaken that same year, was Conley's radio performance WAR!, a two-hour struggle for domination using only cartoon sound effects, conducted live on air by audio artists located in New York and Belgrade, Serbia.

"I come to art making from a mixed background," Conley explains. "My first degree was in experimental psychology from the State University of New York at Binghamton. Having been involved in negative-learning experiments as a National Science Foundation research assistant, delivering electric shocks to goldfish under various drugged conditions, I finished my undergraduate degree with a set of questions that led me to study the philosophy of science and the relationship of human consciousness with that of animals. These inquiries influenced my PhD in philosophy at the University of Minnesota, which I pursued at the same time that I was earning a master's degree in sculpture and attending the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program."

One of Conley's most challenging works to date, which tapped into his interests in psychology, aggression, and communication structures, was realized in 2007. Miniature War in Iraq took a history buffs' war game and gave it a topical twist. Conley collaborated with a community of miniature war gamers, who constructed elaborate dioramas on which they played out historical battles using toy soldiers and rolls of the dice. But this time, instead of replaying the Battle of Waterloo or the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach, gamers at the Games Expo 2007 in Las Vegas found themselves playing out a still-unfolding conflict from the present war. Working with Arabic-speaking researchers -- CCA MFA grads Taha Belal and Dina Danish -- Conley culled up-to-the-minute information on events on the ground in Iraq. Relayed to the games-master, these urgent dispatches furnished scenarios for two days of play. Miniature War in Iraq was presented in 2008 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and in 2010 as an expanded performance at the Boiler/Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn, entitled Miniature War in Iraq . . . and Now Afghanistan.

In 2012 Conley is shifting his sights to another challenging aspect of U.S. policy: the increasing utilization of unmanned aircraft. "I found a U.S. military 'roadmap' online detailing plans to greatly expand the use of drones over the next 25 years," he explains. "This will create a radical shift in warfare; it already has. And there are dicey ethical issues lurking, as we are beginning to see from our use of drones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. These aircraft are even being used on U.S. soil against U.S. citizens. The question I am now thinking about is how to make art around such heavy issues while not being didactic, presumptuous, or simply proclaiming my own beliefs. In Miniature War in Iraq I took an oblique angle on this volatile material, and invited participants from a community whose areas of expertise -- however offbeat -- turned out to be highly relevant. I may want to use a similar strategy again. It is interesting to release authorial control over projects and allow a public to shape the outcome, especially when the content is of public concern."

Conley understands such collaborative structures as integral to his teaching as well as his art making. "This crossing of the art/life divide is fundamental to my work, and this is partly why my involvement as an artist in Sada makes sense. The educational matrix that we're developing fits very well into my long-standing involvement with open-ended, participatory processes. In another sense, however, this is too abstract a way of discussing Sada. The online school uses an array of simple technologies to construct a fluid site for communication between young artists still in Baghdad and older, established artists who have built audiences elsewhere in the world. Working to support these young artists, and providing a hub for communication about Iraqi contemporary art, are worthwhile goals no matter how they relate to the rest of my practice."