Persia Beheshti Shares Thoughts on Virtual Worlds and the State of Video Art in Dubai Ahead of Her Screening at Bayt Al Mamzar
By Sophie Mayuko Arni
Published on February 22nd, 2023
This Saturday, February 25th, Persia Beheshti will be screening her latest film, entitled Elysium, at Bayt al Mamzar, one of Dubai’s precious independent artist studio and gallery spaces.
Elysium is a film that was entirely shot in Dubai Garden Glow, a place which resonates with Beheshti’s affinity for the ethereal, liminal, and alternative virtual worlds. As you will read in our conversation below, she even called the family-friendly amusement park “what the internet would feel like if the internet was a real place.”
The multimedia installation artist embeds many traits of her hometown: inspired by both ancient traditions and the digital realm, Peheshti’s work sits in a liminal space and provides an archway into an optimistic future, a culturally-hybrid one that values both spirituality and growth.
The following conversation took place over Zoom, across continents, and touches on various topics, from her many travels to her beginnings as an installation artist, her opinions about video art in Dubai and the process of directing this film.
The following conversation took place on February 10th, 2023.
Sophie Mayuko Arni: I remember seeing your work in the 2021 digital exhibition Garden of e-arthly Delights, curated by Ruba Al Sweel for SUMAC Space. It seems your visual language is both embedded in ethereal digital culture and symbols vernacular to this region’s context. Could you start by telling us a little more about yourself? Did you grow up in Dubai, and when did you start creating video work?
Persia Beheshti: I’m half-Persian, half-New Zealander, and I was born and raised in Dubai. I studied in London and then moved to the US, where I gravitated towards filmmaking and working in film production. I started to develop my directing practice in New York, directing short-format films ranging from documentaries to music videos.
You could say that I’m interested in the ethereal subject matter. I tend to avoid identitarian subjects in my practice, I don’t like being placed in a box because of my origins. I think we’re moving past identity politics in the digital art world: the identity of the artists matters less than the strength of the artwork itself.
I think we’re moving past identity politics in the digital art world: the identity of the artists matters less than the strength of the artwork itself.
S.M.A.: In terms of medium, would you define yourself as a video artist?
P.B.: I would say that video art is a part of my practice, due to my background in film, but I’m more interested in creating physical installations that incorporate video elements. I’m less interested in creating a film for a screen, and more interested in creating a space for a film.
Meriem Bennani, a Moroccan video artist, has been a huge influence on my practice. She predominantly works with film but incorporates sculptural elements in her installation. I found myself naturally gravitating toward the fine art realm once I was introduced to multi-faceted installations. There is this tendency in the film world to stick to conventions in terms of story-telling. I would like my work to feel more conceptual and less conventional. That is perhaps why I naturally gravitate to ethereal work, films that are a little vaguer, with less cohesive narrative structure, and something which is devoid of a timeline.
S.M.A.: Your work incorporates mysticism and mythology from Persia and the greater Gulf region. Could you expand on that?
P.B.: I tend to mix many influences in my work – ranging from mermaid cosplay all the way to Jinn mythology, prevalent in the Gulf.
For my collaborative installation in Zurich for example [part of an exhibition entitled Law & Order at Kulturfolger, 2021], I looked at the traditional folklore of the region and wanted to create an arch to access an alternate realm. What would the liminal space between two archways look like? I wanted the audience to access an alternate world, to step out of time and space constraints just for the time of that exhibition.
You could say that is the most identitarian aspect of my work. I’ll use symbols from Persian or Gulf mythology and incorporate ancient knowledge into a more contemporary context. I like to bridge cultural wisdom into the tech world, merging the ancient and the digital worlds and inhabiting the space between the two.
I use symbols from Persian or Gulf mythology and incorporate ancient knowledge into a more contemporary context.
S.M.A.: How would you describe your relationship with the Internet?
P.B.: There is something very esoteric about the Internet. I find it to be quite a spiritual space. It’s the ultimate stream of infinite consciousness and a place of endless possibility. I do feel that we lost touch with the sacredness in our modern civilization, and the Internet has taken over the youth in terms of a portal to access alternative worlds.
The Internet has taken over the youth in terms of a portal to access alternative worlds.
I’m very interested in presenting digital identities in physical form. Right now I’m working with this AI and 3D software to create forms and shapes of ancient relics. I’m very excited to see how AI, CGI, and 3D printing will be integrated with excavation and used to revive and restore ancient relics and buried cities.
I’m very excited to see how AI, CGI, and 3D printing will be integrated with excavation and used to revive and restore ancient relics and buried cities.
S.M.A.: To come back to the UAE, I was curious if you could share your thoughts about the state of digital and video art in Dubai’s art scene – I feel like there are very few venues for younger artists to show multi-media installation work in Dubai, in part because this type of work is hard to sell. It’s a shame because top-notch infrastructure exists. When you think about it, Dubai has some of the world’s largest LED screens and is always innovating with projections on water, sand, and buildings.
P.B.: I agree. I feel that Dubai has limited venues and opportunities to showcase multimedia installation art, especially on the experimental side. Maybe that’s why many video and installation artists end up leaving for further studies and artistic development. Apart from The Third Line, which represents Farah Al Qasimi for example, I feel like there are not a lot of spaces for multimedia artists to show their works.
I hope Dubai will nurture more venues dedicated to showing experimental video art and multimedia digital installations. I’m thinking of abandoned spaces would feel more experiential and less commercial. Perhaps more galleries could create satellite spaces to accommodate playful, experimental digital art.
When you compare Dubai’s ecosystem to other art centers in Europe and U.S., I can sense that the West caters more to this type of art, which is on the rise right now. With Noor Riyadh [annual light art festival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia] and Team Lab opening their new outpost soon in Abu Dhabi, our region is catching up but there is still a lot of room for us to grow.
I hope Dubai will nurture more venues dedicated to showing experimental video art and multimedia digital installations.
S.M.A.: It’s true that Saudi Arabia has been spearheading some fantastic exhibitions and festivals lately. What do you think of Al-Ula for example?
P.B.: I’m a fan of Al Ula and the various exhibitions and permanent installations underway there. I think the desert is a very spiritual place, and I enjoy this way of showcasing site-specific installations in ancient tunnels and caves, taking the art outside of its white cube setting.
White cubes tend to feel very stiff. My work deals with the ethereal, which means my artworks come to life when the audience is transported. Anything that makes visitors feel like they are teleported to another universe is more appealing to me.
S.M.A.: Ancient wisdom meets contemporary art in the desert –
P.B.: Exactly. That’s why I’m interested in ancient civilizations. A lot of wisdom and folklore is forgotten at this point, especially when it comes to the Persian empire. I think it’s important to bring attention to these ancient civilizations that were once beacons of knowledge. Just because of the landscapes they sit in, many civilizations of the Gulf were based on sensory experiences. Oral traditions sit in the center, but also sound, architecture, sculpture, and scent: holistic aesthetic experiences have always been part of this region. In the same vein, I would like my art practice to focus on creating art spaces, rather than singular artworks in a white cube.
The virtual world enables me to blend technological motifs with mythic archetypes, interplaying with ancient mysticism and cyber-spirituality.
S.M.A.: Let’s delve into this new video work, titled Elysium (2022). It’s a 4-min single-channel video narrated by Sofia, also known as @Poorspigga, a digital artist mostly active on Instagram. Shot in Dubai, the video tells the story of a girl moving “between the corporality of earth and the ethereal in the digital”, guided by the voice of an “angelic cyber-celestial liminal deity,” as the synopsis reads. Could you tell us more about it?
P.B.: Elysium was entirely shot in Dubai Garden Glow. It’s an amusement park built for families, a wholesome and famous venue in Dubai for kids to play around with all types of light installations. I was so inspired by the surroundings and wanted to dedicate a whole film about it. I directed, produced, and edited the film while also playing the lead role with the help of my fantastic Production team and ActionFilmz.
Dubai Garden Glow is what the internet would feel like if the internet was a real place. Strange animal sculptures, LED lights, tunnels, caves, cables – it’s an out-of-this-world setting, that can make you feel a little bit delirious if you spend enough time in it, especially after sunset.
In terms of production, this project has been two years in the making. I was first thinking about applying a sci-fi narrative to the Garden Glow: I was researching concepts of liminal deities and goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology specifically. These goddesses are known as the gatekeepers of the afterlife, you have to pass through them to enter the gate of the afterlife.
I’m interested to explore in-between, liminal, spaces: what sits between human and spirit, physical and digital, earth and paradise? For me, Dubai Garden Glow is some kind of a liminal space. There are so many tunnels throughout the park, and I wanted that to become a central theme of the film. For me, tunnels symbolize rebirth.
Dubai Garden Glow is what the internet would feel like if the internet was a real place.
The central character is a girl who is trapped in a digital world and wants to come back to the corporeal world. I think we all collectively feel an uneasy fear of the metaverse, as if we are all heading toward a sinister metaverse. I don’t like to live in fear and wanted to create a hopeful film, where the character feels optimistic at the end.
I approached Poorspigga as I thought she was the perfect embodiment of a postmodern “e-girl” persona: a self-created digital artist, who is myth-making herself on the Internet, and using social media as a place to create. A lot of people don’t know if she is real or not: is she real, or is she AI-created? She plays that tension with her audience.
I gave her full creative freedom to write the script. I didn’t want it to be hyper-academic like video art scripts tend to feel. I wanted the language to be poetic and very accessible to as many people as possible. Her writing is easy and flows nicely with the film.
I directed and edited the film in Dubai, while Poospigga was writing the script and recording her voiceover in Miami, where she is based. We were working completely remotely, which adds to the project’s internet work dynamic. The scenes were all shot at night at Garden Glow, past 10pm, over three scorching hot days in May. It was so hot and humid, which also adds a certain ethereal quality to the images we captured.
I approached Poorspigga as I thought she was the perfect embodiment of a postmodern “e-girl” persona.
S.M.A.: Interesting, and going back to creating holistic spaces for your films, how would you like this video to be installed ideally?
P.B.: We already screened the film once at Coaxial Arts, a space that shows a lot of experimental video art in downtown L.A. It was a traditional video projection, and we’ll be using a similar format for our next screening on February 25th at Bayt Al Mamzar in Dubai.
I’m currently working on a larger installation of Elysium for an exhibition this summer in Seoul, Korea. I’ve been invited by CICA Museum to show the film, and I’m very excited about this opportunity. I’m thinking of developing a more interactive way to screen the film, one that encourages the audience to move through a structure to eventually reach the screen.
I’m currently working on a larger installation of Elysium for an exhibition this summer in Seoul, Korea.
Dubai Garden Glow is such an ornate world; it’s an elaborate visual experience. I want to build an interactive screening experience, making the audience move through a space to view the film, to further cement this liminal feeling. I’m also exploring other options, like a multi-channel projection, showing different timelines of the same film and distorting the overall audio to create saturated layers of voices. I already have a clean version of the film with subtitles, so I would love to roughen it up to add more vagueness and complexity to it.
Persia Beheshti is an artist based in the Middle East. Her practice concerns relationships between eschatology, spirituality, and social thought. Beheshti's work often explores other-wordly and ethereal subject matter, with the intention to unearth allegories for alternate realities across widespread subcultural milieu.
Sophie Mayuko Arni is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Global Art Daily.