Ala Ebtekar & Dorothy R. Santos

Between You and Me

Ala Ebtekar & Dorothy R. Santos

By Ala Ebtekar, Dorothy R. Santos December 7, 2018

Between You and Me is a series of dialogic exchanges between artists and their collaborators and peers to materialize the countless conversations, musings, and debates that are often invisible, yet play a significant role in the generative space of art-making.

This column is funded by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, a private family foundation dedicated to enhancing quality of life by championing and sustaining the arts, promoting early childhood literacy, and supporting research to cure chronic disease.


Dearest Ala,

How on earth did this cosmic epistolary exchange boomerang its way back into our orbit? I remember sitting at a restaurant catching up with you after one of your trips to Iran, and we were talking about collaborating on a book project. Years later, here we are, exchanging letters.

It’s been pretty challenging wrapping my head around being back in academia and making art. In recent years, I’ve been able to call myself a writer, editor, and curator with confidence. But being an artist?

I’m accustomed to the process of co-creating, but producing work on my own has been intellectually and emotionally exhausting and challenging. Our practices might seem rather disparate to outsiders since you focus on the cosmos—the macro—while I concentrate on the micro—the human body and its interior, for instance. That being said, your work, especially your research with NASA and Iranian mythology and poetry, forces the viewer to situate themselves in this interstitial space. I, on the other hand, have been grappling with what resides within us. I want find the edges and contours of what makes us who we are, at the atomic level and down to our DNA phenotypes. Granted, I know there’s so much involved in this question, and it’s probably far too philosophical for these letters—there’s so much to communicate—but that’s where my head is lately.

I’ve been focused on human bodies and our interaction and reliance on machines. I wrote about Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s work, The Immortal, a few years ago. I don’t believe we discussed this work, but it continues to serve as constant inspiration to my fixation with machines and devices. It became an obsession ever since I almost died back in 2010. I’m convinced almost losing my life has had long term effects I have yet to discover. Not that I want this letter to end in such a morbid fashion, but let’s just say, art has kept me and many people alive especially in the historical and cultural times we find ourselves now. I guess, what I’m trying to communicate is I’ve been thinking frequently about how art necessitates and begs for change outside of the museum and gallery walls now, more so than ever. There’s so much knowledge to exchange and there’s a lot of work for us to do. In any case, tag. You’re it.




Dear Dorothy,

Not sure how, but I believe we planted that seed years ago, and I feel fortunate that it’s come to sprout this spring. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation and seeing where it may take us.

I would agree—to outsiders, at first glance, our work may seem disparate, but for those who are able to look deeper, it would reveal otherwise. And perhaps where we both meet is at that interstitial space…

11th century Persian theologian, philosopher, and mystic Al-Ghazali wrote that the heart has two gates: one opening outwards, which is that of the senses, and one opening inwards towards the divine world, which is within the heart—the gate whereby the heart receives inspiration and revelation (Al-Ghazali: The Mystic, trans. M. Smith, 1944, p. 144).



Thanks for sharing the Al-Ghazali story. I’ll get back to that in a minute...

You were missed at the Worlds in Collision (WIC) symposium. It was fantastic! I’m not surprised you would receive early morning calls from Carlos Villa during your time at San Francisco Art Institute. I remember visiting one of his painting classes years ago, I saw how much respect and love his students had for him. WIC was epic, and I had the opportunity to listen to artists, educators, and cultural producers whose practices embody his pedagogy. Jenifer Wofford did an incredible job gathering folks together, but who can resist Woff? I’m not sure if you know that I attribute a lot of my getting into the arts is due to me reaching out to her, offering to help her install a show (back in 2007 at Southern Exposure when it was still off Valencia Street!!), and gaining some much needed guidance on how to navigate the Bay Area art world. She’s been in my life ever since.

Now, back to Al-Ghazali. I really, truly love this idea of the heart having two gates or entrances. Much like a door or portal, it’s a place where the act of arriving and departing happen simultaneously. An opening outward leading into the senses makes me think of why I’ve always been passionate about the arts. Lately, I’ve been thinking way more about artwork which doesn’t give primacy to vision such as some of the sound compositions created by Chicago-based artist Lee Blalock or Los Angeles-based artist Anna Luisa Petrisko. While I understand both of their practices incorporate visuals, I’ve been drawn deeply to sound-making over mark-making lately. Truth be told, I’m trying to find the gateway that opens my heart inward to the revelation of something different from what my eyes see, you know? The world is just way too much right now, and as I’ve noted in a collaborative work I did with Surabhi Saraf: vision is treacherous.

BUT, your artwork manifests outwardly as literal and figurative visions. As of the past few years, you seem to have removed figurative from your work? I’m curious about that shift. Selfishly, I’m far more interested in talking about sound with you since we have bonded over music and sounds specific to the Bay. So, riff, my friend… I’m curious what you’re listening to these days or what you’ve gone back to. Also, I started listening to Iranian funk music… amazing!!




I’m sure it was fantastic—I wish I could have made it. Worlds in Collision was groundbreaking. It’s so wonderful to see folks continuing the work. It looked like a terrific lineup. For those who studied with Carlos, we owe a lot to him. I especially, having taken three or four of his classes and worked with him closely during my last year at SFAI on my coffeehouse (Elemental) project. During the spring of my senior year, I think had six or eight units of Directed Study just with Carlos. We sat downstairs in his office and had conversations that truly helped shape my language and practice… And yes, he’d call frequently at 7 or 7:30am and would leave long messages on the answering machine. At the time, I lived with my family in the East Bay, and it was through those long messages on the machine that my parents also got to know Carlos. They had obviously heard about him from me, but I think they got to know him in a different way by hearing his voice—thoughtful and sincere—his messages left in the early morning on a regular basis throughout my studies. For many of us who had the privilege of working with him, it shaped what we do now, and I think in some way or another we are trying to continue some of the work and/or methodologies of working and teaching he helped build, in our own way.

There’s too many stories, and far too many exchanges with Carlos that left an impression in my life and work to mention. Up until he passed, he would always come to any show I had. Even if he couldn’t make the opening, he’d make a point of going to see it and writing me afterwards. Truly thoughtful and inspiring.

My first introduction to Carlos Villa was walking into an empty classroom at SFAI where Carlos and Pat Klein interviewed me, and reviewed my work which I carried in with me. These were done in person once a year at SFAI for applicants seeking admission. If you got a good review, they would let you in, and Carlos and Pat awarded me the Presidential Merit Scholarship to go to the Art Institute. The concept of my coffeehouse crystallized in his office during the course of the spring semester of my last year at SFAI in 2002.

Ala Ebtekar. Elemental (2004); installation view, Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco.

You mention Carlos, and then ask me about sound. I can’t help to think of the soundtrack for Elemental. It played through the coffeehouse that we built at Intersection for the Arts in 2004 with curator Kevin B. Chen and a whole lot of family and friends who came together to help build this space. A few years later, it went on to be included in One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now a touring exhibition that opened in the Asia Society in New York, curated by Susette S. Min, Melissa Chiu, and Karin Higa.

The sound was a composition of layers and layers of audio recordings from my many sittings at coffeehouses in Tehran where I frequently visited. The material was then given to my uncle and experimental sound artist Ata “Sote” Ebtekar to work with. We talked about the concept of the project and the experience I was hoping the audience would have stepping into the Elemental space, the folding of spaces (and times) upon each other, as well as hearing the residue of history. He produced a piece in response to that, using many of the sounds I had originally recorded on MiniDisc. The composition played softly in the space as folks arrived and departed…

Elemental (2004-08) exhibition soundtrack by SOTE / Ata Ebtekar, from 22 hours of audio recordings from Qahveh-khanehs by Ala Ebtekar, 2004.

You speak of being in search of that opening. Something I actually see in your work and writing is a sense of looking outwards and inwards simultaneously. Even the artists that you mentioned seem to also be exploring some of those inward / outward spaces in their practice. I wonder if perhaps it’s in the work, or rather in the process of it, for you that it’s found? I think there’s something beautiful about being on the path towards that gateway you mention. I often attempt to paint or make it with my hands, it but in truth it can be found (or seen) everywhere…

But yes, I agree. The right kind of vision can be treacherous. The 12th century mystical philosopher and founder of Illuminationism, Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi speaks about vision in his work A Day with the Sufis. He writes about how the few who know that seeing is a journey with the mind’s eye close their eyes to see.


Yo! I’ve been trying to think about how to continue Carlos’s legacy of Worlds in Collision. We shall see what’s in store for the near future. I have a few things cooked up in 2019, but I’ll save all of that for when we catch up in person!

Thank you so much for sharing Carlos’s penchant for leaving long, detailed messages and how your parents got to know him, his voice, and dedication to his students. I actually miss old media like the answering machine. Recently, I listened to a Decoder Ring episode (via Slate) about the Laff Box, which was a machine used for laugh tracks on old sitcoms. Essentially, the inventor Charley Douglas was fascinated by laughs and how they punctuated moments in dialogue meant to be a punchline or quip. I’m such a huge fan of voice memos and sending them to my loved ones because you can’t say everything in a text or email. I also think it’s beautiful to hear someone’s voice, you know? So, yeah, it was lovely to hear your story about Carlos. Wishing I could find and retrieve my mom’s old answering machine. Imagine all of the sonic gems we would find.

I remember you working with your uncle and the recordings you collected from the coffeehouses. It’s a shame cafes in the US are not treated with the same type of reverence for storytelling and artistic practice. Not to be pedantic, but I wanted to share the definition of elemental:

Look at the second definition! Ha, so you, Ala Ebtekar, use language with double meaning. I often think about elemental as “primary or basic,” but quickly remember the universal elements. I think this is one of the reasons why I’ve seen the work you’ve produced in recent years as returning to the very things humans look towards for answers that already lie within the soul. But, this may not be so obvious or evident because the answers we seek never come to us the way we might want or expect them to. I wanted to ask about your parents, actually. I didn’t have much time to speak with them at the wedding, which was so much FUN, by the way. How have the different phases of your practice changed the conversation with your parents over time? What political and cultural influences marked or aligned in significant changes in your work? Okay, I will leave it here for now. So sorry this message took so long. I know we’re both insanely busy. Looking forward to the next.

With lots of light,



Thank you for sharing that.. It's a lovely thought to imagine what you might find and hear on your mom's old answering machine. What sonic gems indeed. Does she still have it, and is it something you could find? And agreed, there's something about hearing someone's voice. You can tell so much from their tone. It's not just their voice, but the atmosphere and the space they are in/at in that very moment—echoes from the environment that are unheard in a text or email. Not sure if you know, but for the course of six or seven years I would record all the voice messages left on my parents answering machine as well as the messages from my pager that was set up to receive voicemails. I recorded them all on audio cassette and sometimes, not often, revisit them while working in the studio (where I still have a cassette player). They are archived by year and month. I rarely listen to them, but when I do, it’s like I slip into that very moment of hearing a friend’s voice the very first time. Carlos is a frequent guest who visits.

It's interesting you bring up messages, while I'm overseas attempting to be in correspondence with you through text and image via a shared, but glitchy, Google Drive folder/doc. My response is unable to be recorded (or pasted here) since access to Google Chrome or Drive is not permitted in the country I’m in. So, I’m sharing this message via email in hopes you can paste it in our conversation thread on the shared doc...

You mentioned that in recent years, I have returned to the very things that humans look towards for answers which already lie within the soul. And the definition of elemental... I appreciate your words, and that you get that from my practice. Coming from you, that means a lot. I can only say, I hope so. It is has been something I have been perusing in my work,  and something I was very much thinking of in my most recent project Luminous Ground that was on view earlier this year at the di Rosa for Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times.

Ala Ebtekar. Luminous Ground (2018); installation view, di Rosa, Napa.

Luminous Ground consists of one thousand tiles that were molded by hand from local soil in the Central Valley and exposed to the sun to mirror the cosmos above, representing twelve billion years of cosmic history unfolded. The entire work has a twenty-four by ten  feet footprint reflecting the exact dimensions of the skylight directly above. The work shifts the place of heaven and earth, inviting us to shift the direction of our gaze, to imagine the “Original Gaze,” of the skies looking at us, and imagining ourselves as the objects of the 12 billion-year gaze.

Luminous Ground, takes many cues, but one of which is a poem by 11th century polymath Omar Khayyam (not the best translation in English here, but you get the concept):

Drink wine and look at the moon
and think of all the civilizations
the moon has seen passing by.

It brings to mind other timelines—timelines that may allow us to engage or interface with the world and one another, as well as our present day in other ways... timelines seemingly beyond our own but in fact very much connected to us, and ones we often choose not to see.

I also bring up poetry here, since you mention how it is I “use language with double meaning." Maybe it is inherent or something that's rubbed off on me after being surrounded by so much poetry growing up—particularly poetry that has the ability to do or be that in nature. I've always been amazed at the skills of a good poet. Poets who can, in a single poem, speak of love, the earthly or divine kind, as well as something radically political relevant to the time it was written in, yet also be timeless.

In an essay by Catherine Wagley on a series I produced between 2008 and 2011 for an exhibition titled Elsewhen, I looked at some of the works of Hafez, his Divan, and the use of it for divination and augury, which in turn examined Iranian Futurism and notions of Time. Wagley wrote, “Sometimes regression can be retroactive, a move backward that actually catapults you forward. When French philosopher Gilles Deleuze published his dissertation in 1968, the year the Second French Revolution led students to occupy the Sorbonne and workers all over Paris to go on strike, he suggested returning to the past could actually push you into the future. ‘It is because nothing is equal, because everything bathes in its difference, . . . that everything returns,’ he wrote. You feel your way through memory and repeat history because you have changed, so shouldn’t the results be different this time around?”

Thinking of this, as well as our earlier conversation about the gateway and arch, that spans time and history, I can’t help to think of something I’m currently putting together for a lecture that looks at sites such as Sather Gate at UC Berkeley and the various student groups and activists over the past 60 years that have chosen that gate as a site for protest—from the FSM (Free Speech Movement) and TWLF (Third World Liberation Front) of the 1960s to SJP (Students Justice for Palestine) and BLM (Black Lives Matter) of more recent years.



I'm not sure if my Mom has our old answering machine, but she does have many of the old cassette tapes we would make for our family in the Philippines! I can't believe that was the way we communicated at some point in time. It seems so long ago that we would sit at the kitchen table, and I would hear my mom and grandparents speaking Tagalog into a boombox and have me sing songs I learned from school. We would make these tapes and give them to family members traveling to the Philippines and have them play the tapes for our family members. Then, my relatives in the Philippines would make tapes and give the response tapes to the same or another relative traveling to the US. There was a slowness to the communication that seemed to make messages more meaningful, somehow. Regarding the recordings of voicemails you received, I NEED TO LISTEN to a few of those tapes, if you're OK with that. Next time!! Anyway…

You're spot on about traveling and communication being unpredictable. One wouldn't think in our day and age with about a hundred different ways to communicate, the lines and medium of communication could be so erratic! We can say one thing, one minute, and mean something completely different the next minute. Speaking of unpredictability, you're quite elusive on social media. I deeply envy and admire the ease you have in separating yourself. It seems like such a necessary evil for me because I'm a writer and curator (and now making art much more actively these days—something for us to discuss at a later date and offline/off record). Social media is, quite frankly, anxiety-inducing, and you seem to balance your intake so well. The glitch and fragmentation of communication almost seems to be a blessing, sometimes. I know we've been trying to write these letters and it hasn't always been the easiest to reach one another, but it's definitely made me more reflective, contemplative, and intentional. Switching gears now.

Regarding Luminous Ground, the inversion of the gaze towards the ground to see twelve billion years of the cosmos in these tiles is downright magical. I'm obscenely sentimental and fatalistic that, sometimes, I forget to reflect on the past and what the sky and the universe might be trying to tell me from decades, centuries, or even an eon ago. The human mind, at least my mind, finds that philosophical thinking of the earth incomprehensible at times. Thank YOU for sharing the poem by Khayyam. It reminds me of tarot, specifically, the Star and Moon cards, which fall under the 17th and 18th positions in the major arcana. The major arcana are the archetypes and a primary focus for many people since they oftentimes carry significant meaning. Now, I'm not sure you knew this about me, but I read tarot cards! (I'm convinced I've told you this in one of our many conversations.) I started reading tarot when I was about 19 years old and working at a game shop in Stonestown mall (near SF State!). My first tarot deck was a dragon deck, and I was obsessed. Recently, I returned to reading friends and family members' cards because it allows the listener an opportunity to think through their own life choices and inquiries because the answers are already inside them. The cards are merely a reminder of what is latent. Related to the poem you shared about the moon, it's true that the sun, the moon, the stars have all seen far more than any human can possibly imagine. But it's lovely to try, isn't it.

The Star and Moon cards from the Major Arcana, Rider Waite Tarot Deck.

One of the best books on tarot is titled Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot by Rachel Pollack. About the Star and Moon archetypes, she states the following:

About the Star and Moon archetypes…

The Star experience lies beyond words or even form, though it implies forms emerging with the streams of water. In the Moon, we see this process happening, as visions, myths and images. The Moon is the card of the imagination as it moulds the energy of the Star into shapes that the consciousness can comprehend.

Even more about the Moon…

Something about the moon excites fear and strangeness, just as the sun relaxes and consoles us. The Tarot Sun comes after the Moon; simplicity can only be appreciated after a journey through the lunar strangeness.

The way the various parts of the cosmos translate in tarot a little differently from your notion of timelines. While they may, as you say in your last correspondence, "allow us to engage or interface with the world and one another, as well as our present day in other ways...timelines seemingly beyond our own but in fact very much connected to us, and ones we often choose not to see," cannot easily be brought or manifested out into materiality. In essence, Luminous Ground becomes an interpretation of an arc of time, yes? Or no? Well, you let me know when we catch up IRL.

Lastly, I felt you might appreciate the poem, Planetarium by Adrienne Rich.

Also, I can't believe you brought up Deleuze! Ayyyye!! Personally, people either love or hate Deleuze and Guattari. Personally, I enjoy their text especially on differentiating between smooth and striated spaces. If you're wondering, we often live and experience through the striated space. Reaching the smooth realm is, well, damn near impossible (from what I remember). I agree with him. We absolutely feel through our memories, BUT that's the thing... memories are unreliable. I think this is why I fixate on data, on the interior of the body, and recently fascinated by what our others tell us about the world. Recently, I gave a talk at the Arts in Society conference along with new media scholar Dana Cooley. She gave an awesome talk on imagining what light and shadows might sound like, if they have sounds at all. Super fascinating and poetic. Right up your alley and I believe you would dig her work! But yeah, I think that's what I have always appreciated about your long-standing desire to capture the cosmos in such a way that we look in multi-directional fashion as opposed to up because the stuff that makes the stars is the same stuff we're made of, yeah? I know. I know. I'm SUCH dreamer drenched in sentimentality.

In any case, one of the video pieces I worked on this past year is all about impossible sounds. It is a lengthier poetic piece of writing I've done based on all of the things I could fathom have sounds, but are imperceptible to our immediate sense of hearing. But they DO, in fact, exist. Again, I feel like I've told you about this work. Ha. So much to discuss and catch up on. All this being said, what do the stars sound like? What did the technical process and conceptualization phase of Luminous Ground look and feel like? The expanse of the universe is imperceptible, but your work is somehow trying to make it so we are able to read even some small fraction of this vast dimension. Okay, tag, you're it, my friend!


PS: It saddens me that the images of conflict around the world and here in the US are so deep seeded. The images just seem to repeat themselves. Sometimes, I feel insanely guilty about writing and making art. But I know we need to continue this world...we must.


Ala Ebtekar was a presenting artist at the Kenneth Rainin Foundation's "Exploring Public Art Practices" Symposium at the Oakland Museum of California on March 10, 2018. To watch the presentation, visit

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