Dan Bustillo & Gelare Khoshgozaran

Between You and Me

Dan Bustillo & Gelare Khoshgozaran

By Dan Bustillo, Gelare Khoshgozaran March 6, 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.


To: Dan Bustillo
From: Gelare Khoshgozaran

I texted you with what is supposed to be good news: I’m going with a small crew on February 9. I booked an Airbnb nearby—the only one available: a “solar desert oasis.” The Army has our driver license information, as required by their newly automated system. I decided not to wear my Iranian military uniform to the base. I have passed before, traveling and camping in the desert because there is something universal about all military uniforms I suppose. But, that passing was only afforded by a certain physical distance. Under the metal detector at a military base where the specificity of ranks are particularly manifested in uniform colors, patterns, and symbols, the Farsi and Arabic words on my uniform will stutter at a loss for words to translate sarbaz sefr.1 Language, if not the fabric, color, or pattern will immediately mark me as a transplant, an outsider.

I tried to come up with a list of shots I’d need to take during my visit, but it’s hard to prepare for an experience I have only known through images on the internet, my conversations with others who have been there, and Google Maps. I know I am not interested in replicating what I have seen so far—the explosions, the attacks, the ambushes: the spectacle. Part of me wants to get there and feel at home. Part of me wants to be unapologetically open to the effects of what my presence there will have on my body. This is going to be the closest I will have been to the “Middle East,” the “Orient,” “Home,” and the war in nine years.

Immigration taught me that the rigidity around the idea of authenticity wears off with time. Just as you dwell in a different language for thinking, you get used to things functioning as placeholders or containers for other things: in lieu of, the equivalent of. I remember during a hike in New Mexico when a close friend and I were reflecting on how the trail and its surrounding landscape looked like a certain part of Iran, she asked me why it was that we always wanted to remember places as referents for other experiences in other places. I still don’t know why, and I think I need to walk into the simulacrum of a so-called Middle Eastern town at a US military training center and see how at home I really feel.

The first few years I lived in the US, I didn’t get any jobs I applied for: no barista, busboy, dishwashing jobs. This was besides the fact that I applied for “bookkeeping gigs” boasting about my love for books. I thought bookkeeping was being a personal assistant to a busy librarian! #ESL. No matter what job I applied for, I was either overqualified with a Master’s Degree, or not assimilated enough, whatever that meant. On the extension of my student visa, desperately perusing Craigslist, I applied for a gig as a movie extra. I took a headshot and brought my CV to a building on Hollywood Boulevard where I had to audition a soap opera monologue. All the while, I was hoping that  the languages I spoke according to my CV would get me the job that none of the blonds there could get: an extra in a movie that starts with the sound of azaan2 to a long shot from the window of a room overlooking a third-world city—an extra in a terrorist movie.

Throughout this project and prior to my visit to the training center, the days of applying for that extra gig keeps flashing before my eyes. The immigrant in me keeps thinking I could have a job in a simulated battle as an extra: “a vetted refugee from Iran, speaks Farsi fluently with knowledge of Arabic.” Then, I remember that I’m queer. Isn’t it weird that your experience of being queer is only from the inside? I never look at myself as a queer or queer-looking body, I only live in it. Most of the time I am even oblivious to it, until I think about the potential extra job I cannot get in a simulated battle at a military training center. What does a terrorist look like: me?

To: Gelare Khoshogozaran
From: Dan Bustillo

I feel like I have been waiting for your account of the National Training Center (NTC) Box Tours at Fort Irwin for a long minute. If I recall correctly, my response to your text was something quasi-indecipherable in a sea of typos, like a "wahoo! [flexed biceps emoji][flexed biceps emoji] you finally got an NTC tour date!! I can't wait to hear about it!" bookended by 2018 HNY wishes for health and hope and more strong arm emojis.

It must be strange to abstract an event like that—for me to text you about it casually, enthusiastically, as I encounter this so far removed. I have seen all these Youtube videos that document NTC tours, typically flaunting the spectacle of pyrotechnics and the verisimilitude of war, supported by a desert landscape, an orientalized set design and architecture, and actors dressed as "locals." From what I’ve read or seen via these virtual tours, the training center for US troops is broken up into towns that are meant to evoke the “Middle East” for the Western imaginary (Iraq, Afghanistan, all-in-one as a non-place). They function as toy models: diminutive, intentionally impotent landscapes that solely exist to serve US nationalist and militaristic interests. The reality the simulation terrain relies on and simultaneously denies is erased: the violence of the simulacra, which of course I am watching from the homely, intimate glowing rectangle of my laptop computer, is a montage of explosives, stunts, and fake blood. I have no lived knowledge of anything beyond the simulated landscape and events, and in this way, I suppose I rely on you to decipher it for me.

Yet, you seek something else: an affective return to a real. What is the cost of affect in this case? Does it further the deterritorialization that occurs with memories that crystallize in experiences of diaspora? What is that kind of memory? And what of its violence? Are you recreating a certain violence through which you then reorient yourself, placing yourself as a queer subject in an irreconcilable existence, or making that whole experience unforgivably queer? Are the bodies of queer diasporans marked? If so, to whom are they legible? I can’t imagine that being queer would increase your chances at landing a gig at NTC, although it could be the ultimate homonationalist recruitment protocol, to demonstrate how a queer, Iranian refugee might also fight to protect her new home… like lining the border with Latinx border agents. Although, if you are hired to play the part, it is because you have been typecast outside the space of performance, so you enter already looking a part you’ve been preassigned, whereas Latinx border agents are hired precisely because they do not look the part. In both instances, however, it seems we are dealing with the performance of in/security and the performance of assimilation, against a complicated or even impossible possibility of moving outside restricted space.

To: Dan Bustillo
From: Gelare Khoshgozaran

I have been thinking a lot about returning as a way of understanding. When life seems like a bulldozer whose nose you’re sitting on—when you move forward and everything behind you is demolished—you lose your sense of the past and future. I often don’t look back, fearing all I see would be dust. How are you supposed to imagine a future for yourself, for a land, for a people living there when the present is defined in destruction? Your future is always retroactive; the events are only in the future perfect tense. They have already been completed in your head. When I think of home, I think of all of this, not a specific place. And when I think about Tehran as part of the Middle East, I don’t imagine an area on a map demarcated with a red Sharpie or a link to a Wikipedia page. I imagine peoples, languages, religions, landscapes, traditions, memories, and social relations. The dust in the air from the moving of the imperial bulldozer is not just made from the bricks of the buildings and the asphalt of the roads fallen and destroyed; it’s both Eyal Weizeman’s “forensic architecture” and Jalal Toufic’s The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster.

Not only do the US and its allies continue to dominate, exploit the resources of, and occupy the Middle East, the US practices its strategies in the simulacrum of the Middle East built on stolen Indigenous land in the Mojave Desert. The way the Middle East is constructed here “at home” as a conflation of Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan—as a malleable placeholder for whatever country we are officially at war with—has its roots in the obvious relationship Timothy Mitchell establishes in Orientalism and The Exhibitionary Order:

The nineteenth-century image of the Orient was constructed not just in Oriental studies, romantic novels, and colonial administrations, but in all the new procedures with which Europeans began to organize the representation of the world, from museums and world exhibitions to architecture, schooling, tourism, the fashion industry, and the commodification of everyday life.

In the context of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the series of world fairs that followed “what Arab writers found in the West,” Mitchell argues, “were not just exhibitions and representations of the world, but the world itself being ordered up as an endless exhibition. This world-as-exhibition was a place where the artificial, the model, and the plan were employed to generate an unprecedented effect of order and certainty.”

The cycle of world-as-exhibition, Orientalism, and colonial rule in relation to the “Middle Eastern” towns of the US military training sites is what I am most interested in studying through my physical presence there. The presence of these towns on Indigenous land in the Mojave perfectly demonstrates the colonial narrative of domination and conquest as a twisted continuum.

The nopales on the side of the road in a scene from Homeland that is supposed to take place a few miles outside of Tehran is a moment where the land—in this case, I’m guessing the California desert—breathes momentarily, and its exhale paints the neocolonial plot to conquer Tehran against a long history of colonialism here “at home.” These errors of the makers, fabricators, writers, and policy “experts” that leave traces in the material conditions of how spaces, scenes, and simulacra, supposedly representing the “Middle East” are built, is what has drawn me to Fort Irwin. There, the flag of Afghanistan is painted on a hotel next to an alley with an Arabic name, in a town called Medina Wasl that is desperately trying to say “Connecting Town” in Arabic, but fails to do so for the Arabic speaker. Language is as material as the buildings and walls of this town, as the bodies of those who play “terrorist,” “insurgent,” or “civilian” in its simulated battles. Said writes:

...we need not look for correspondences between the language used to depict the Orient and the Orient itself, not much because the language is inaccurate but because it is not even trying to be accurate.3

To: Gelare Khoshogozaran
From: Dan Bustillo

Like any partition, wall, or adjoining structure, that which connects also separates. “Connecting Town” does exactly this. It is a neocolonial act that operates through simulation and indefinitely distances the simulacrum from its real, making it so the “other” (body and/or land) can only be understood through the Orientalist impulse of trying it on.

Through these errors, it seems, “Connecting Town” regulates both the reality it loosely references as well as the ways in which it can be simulated in the Orientalist imaginary. I wonder what might escape this framework? Is there anything residing in affective excess, like parts of the landscape—nopales for instance—which you might not see from the nose of the bulldozer but that you know are there? Or, lived histories of the Mojave already flattened into a strata of oppression that, when omitted from the desert’s current use by the US military, build resilience that is almost invisible to its imperial engineers? I feel like that is the queer part of this.

Homeland is so revealing of how indiscriminately discriminate US nationalism is. It is as if they knew they couldn't have a crew of all white cis straight men fighting terror, but their attempt at diversifying that crew makes another terrifyingly real statement altogether: inter-minoritarian solidarity is curated to further a xenophobic, white supremacist, patriarchal nationalist cause. This is kind of the basis for what I’ve been calling the “Homeland critique,” which is to say anything that can fold criticism or resistance back into its apparatus, turning it into currency. Homeland did this in every way, from the being called out as a racist show in its scene decor by the very artists it hired to graffiti the walls for the show to modeling characters after its most vocal critics and hiring them as consultants.

You and I talk a lot about contamination as a way of resisting co-option. Does contamination get us past the Homeland critique? Is it possible to not be agents of each other’s oppression? Can contamination be anti-assimilation through conditional assimilation (which is not to say the conditions of one’s assimilation, but conditions as in demands that are made by the assimilating person to change the very structure that alienated them in the first place)?

To: Dan Bustillo
From: Gelare Khoshgozaran


I’ve been wanting to write to you with an update, but I decided to wait and read your response before writing. I was not able to go on the tour I had been waiting for for so long. The reasons for that are beyond what the frame of this conversation allows me to elaborate. I got close, very close, but I have to wait again in precarity.

When I revisited my last two projects that were included in Rocket Rain: موشک باران, and in conversation with my peers, I realized how much temporality was central to both Cosmos and U.S. Customs Demands to Know. Time was registered and experienced at multiple paces and durations in both projects, which spoke directly to my living status here and deciding to make that work: not being able to visit the archives I needed in Iran, and asking my parents to send them to me in accordance with the US Post Office’s protocols under the embargo on Iran. It took me three years to receive the few objects, archives, and ephemera that I needed to research that one project. Similarly, Cosmos was very much reliant on the contradictions of time when trying to represent the experience of a catastrophe such as war, or crisis that led to it, or the experience of life under such crisis. Having the live feed of the UN webcast discussing “the crisis in Syria,” juxtaposed with the archive of Kayhan Newspaper from 1985-1986 during the Iran-Iraq war and my mother’s nine months of pregnancy, I was hoping to create a simultaneity that would complicate the narrative of the “past,” “present,” and “future” to instead create a nonlinear continuum.

On Friday, February 9 when I was in the desert and trying to understand whether I could finally visit the Box, I got a Google Alert that explained the reason why I was not able to visit: “Fort Carson soldiers prepare for battle at Fort Irwin, Calif.” That was when I more clearly realized how time was central to this project, in its immediacy to what has been unfolding in the realm of international politics and the potential invasion of Iran, or North Korea. At least, that is what we are shown in the news, while there is a lot more that we don’t even have access to as news. Through these experiences in this and past projects, I realized that when you enter the “art project” as a human body and a political being, any calculated equation gets easily destabilized. The pH of this pool of liquid that I had so meticulously prepared for my experiment changed as soon as I dipped my finger in it.

To your point of contamination, when I bring the messiness of my political body into a project like this, I contaminate its pristine, contemporary art vitrine. These are the very material aspects of a research-based practice that I am genuinely interested in, but only when undertaken from my unique subject position. Like a sculptor spending months in the studio figuring out the right proportions and techniques when working with a certain material, I am trying to figure out the balances, proportions and feasibility of my process. The material I am working with: my thirty-two letter long name, an Iranian passport, and my art practice on one hand, and the US military’s simulacrum of a Middle Eastern town, which their community outreach representative calls “the installation” on the other.

To: Gelare Khoshgozaran
From: Dan Bustillo

Rearranging that temporality then is also imperative to what you’re doing. I would say this re-ordering occurs beyond the scope of the project, but I don’t think that is so.  It seems more like you are asking everyone else to come up with a different framework with which to understand your project. And I like your demands. What if you never went to Medina Wasl? You’ve experienced it in numerous refracted ways thus far; maybe it no longer requires a direct tour? Maybe you’re crafting something else, something that barely contains the tour?

In our first exchange, you expressed how difficult it is to storyboard your visit, the experience you will have at a place you’ve only engaged with through digital mediations, the internet, and Google Maps. It seems you were contending with an abstract proximity, only to then be startled at how close it could get. I suppose the Google Alert was meant to make everything seem more real by unexpectedly invading the daily life of the tour-goers through their cell phones, dissolving the real through any and all personal channels and imposing on them a different kind of time. Perhaps your entry into this world will require more time, or a different kind of time altogether. Though not the kind of contamination you and I refer to as a desirable tactic, it is a contamination nonetheless. But then I suppose that doesn’t render contamination as we have been referring to it futile, especially if that contamination is temporal. It’s like you said earlier, “Your future is always retroactive; the events are only in the future perfect tense.” In thinking about when diasporan time meets artistic time, I want to juxtapose your quote with one by Junot Díaz, “The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.”


  1. Iranian military equivalent of Recruit or Private E-1.
  2. Muslim call for prayer.
  3. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1979), 71.

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