Between No Wave and the Female Golem: The Art of Marjan Moghaddam

 Fig. 1a:  Marjan Moghaddam,  Shot in Iran , 2012 Digital Painting, 20” X 55” Edition of 10, 32” X 89” Edition of 3. Available as Archival Digital C-Print or Archival Aluminum Print

Fig. 1a:  Marjan Moghaddam, Shot in Iran, 2012 Digital Painting, 20” X 55” Edition of 10, 32” X 89” Edition of 3. Available as Archival Digital C-Print or Archival Aluminum Print

By Charissa N. Terranova, PhD


Sous les pavés, la plage! [Under the pavement, the beach!]

                                    – Anonymous rallying cry of demonstrators in Paris, May, 1968

There are no waves, only the ocean.

                                                                                                            – Claude Chabrol[1]

The machine…is the modern counterpart of the Golem of the Rabbi of Prague. Since I have insisted upon discussing creative activity under one heading, and in not parceling it out into separate pieces belonging to god, to man, and to the machine, I do not consider that I have taken more than an author’s normal liberty in calling this book GOD AND GOLEM, Inc.           

                        – Norbert Wiener[2]

A diverse set of forces unites in the fire of New York artist Marjan Moghaddam’s passion. They are the righteous indignation of revolution, cool post-punk aesthetics of No Wave, and the high theory of mid-twentieth-century cybernetics, each cued here in the language of Parisian riot, French New Wave director Claude Chabrol, and MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener. These vectors and pulsions come from zones both high and low, permeate her being, and channel through the words and phrases, like “the sublime,” “the metaphysical,” “chaoscape,” and “Islamic Revolution,” peppering Moghaddam’s white-hot discursion. Armed with an inherently sophisticated set of math skills and an openness to the world, she arrived in New York City from Tehran in 1979, having fled the Islamic Revolution with her mother. In the titillatingly grungy New York of Mayor Ed Koch, smoldering buildings, and late-Disco, post-punk free play, she “fell in love with the promise of technology.” Moghaddam left one revolution in the Middle East to catalyze another in the United States. Hers is an ongoing agit-prop insurgency of gender and technology combined: that of being a woman in the field, then emergent and now all pervasive, of digital animation and design.

 Fig. 1b:  Shot In Iran  (detail, right center)

Fig. 1b: Shot In Iran (detail, right center)

In the digital painting Shot in Iran (2012), layers of figural, fractured, and textual information communicate a hailstorm of memories harking back to Moghaddam’s arrival in New York. [Figs. 1a-d] The painting is at once a personal memoir, anonymous portrait, and heartfelt missive to viewers. At the center, a robot rendered in cubist form stands stunned, with arms, hands, and legs akimbo. This genderless bot is front, center, and the bull’s eye of a target. Graffiti in Farsi from a wall in Tehran reads, “the shameful revolution.” In the upper left-hand corner, the Farsi symbol for love reigns sanguinely over an otherwise emblazoned landscape of ruin. Moghaddam recounts in text amid figures and firestorm:   

I lived through the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1978 when I was 17. We lived near the TV station. After the collapse of the transitional government, the tanks and soldiers were stationed there, surrendered and came down the hill. I was walking home on Pahlavi Boulevard, there were crowds lined up on either side of the street cheering the surrendering army. The soldiers were sitting on top of the tanks rolling through the boulevard. Some had flowers in their rifles, given to them by the people. They were smiling and waving at everyone. I stood there watching the scene, as crowds started singing and clapping. Suddenly there was gunfire, gunmen started to shoot at the soldiers…I ducked, people were running. I was really stoned, from hash, didn’t really want to be caught in that situation.

 Fig. 1c:  Shot In Iran  (detail, upper right corner)

Fig. 1c: Shot In Iran (detail, upper right corner)

Autobiographical prose in English continue on the opposite side of the targeted robot, recounting two Gulf Wars, how the visuals of the American attack in 1992 flooded the mass media while an effective information black out during the second Gulf War starting in 2003 created a noise vacuum. “By the time the 2nd invasion of Iraq rolled in,” she tells, “there were no more images, not even the smart bombs, or tech data overlays, not even shitty low resolution, black and white video.” The somber, melancholic text serves as counterpoint to the conflagration of form in which it is embedded. Though far away in New York, war in the Middle East is always with her, a frequent touchstone in her work that creates a bedrock of just and reasonable anger, urgency, and political truth-telling.

 Fig. 1d:  Shot In Iran  (detail, lower left corner)

Fig. 1d: Shot In Iran (detail, lower left corner)

Shortly after arriving in New York, she enrolled in courses at the Manhattan Campus of the New York Institute of Technology where she studied Communication Arts. A student by day, she was a member of the East Village demimonde by night. In the years leading up to her simultaneously headlong and judicious dive into digital media, her tools were a bit more analogue. She communicated the headiness of Manhattan’s burgeoning post-punk anti-disco No Wave scene through a handheld video camera. In the early 1980s, Moghaddam frequented the Pyramid Club, the ribald and melodramatic epicenter of East Village drag queen and gay culture. She recorded interviews, performances of bands and drag queens, and the random interactions of its now bygone culture. In the new millennium, she edited footage from 1984 to 1988, including videos taken by Bryan Butterick a.k.a. Hattie Hattaway, co-founder and creative director of the Pyramid Club, creating Drag Queens, Skinheads, Artists, and Some Girls. [Fig. 2] With resonances of Nan Goldin and Kenneth Anger, it is Moghaddam’s 16-minute montage-cum-homage to the free-loving gender-bending culture of Lower Manhattan in the first half of the 1980s. In this flickering hodgepodge, a motley crew of characters appears, including Gordon Spaeth of the Fleshtones, Dean Johnson, Sister Dimension, Rat at Rat R, Ethyl Eichelberger, Hapi Phace, Tabboo!, Bunny Manattan, Marlene Menard, Iris Rose & Joshua Fried, Julie Hair, Jimmy Gestapo, Bernard Zette, They Might Be Giants, and many more. Moghaddam’s penchant for the kinetics of light, figure, and the disjecta membra of rearguard and avant-garde technology – all interacting in a frenzy of bravura grey tones – crystallizes in this video.

Figure 2: Marjan Moghaddam, editor; with footage shot by Marjan Moghaddam and Bryan Butterick from 1984-1988, “Drag Queens, Skinheads, Artists, and Some Girls,” 2010

While visually distinct from her digitally generated game-based figural and moving-image work today, Drag Queens, Skinheads, Artists, and Some Girls bears the same energy and love of movement. Technologically speaking, it is an origin point in her oeuvre, with the Pyramid Club approximating a second home after Tehran. It captures a society encrusted in transition. In terms of political economy, New York circa 1980 was at the heart of a major shift in economic philosophy and practice. When Moghaddam arrived, English-speaking Western democracies were on the cusp, departing from state-led Keynesian visions of full employment and a robust public sphere to a Hayekian free market free-for-all. New York City was schizophrenic, Janus-faced and torn between times, with one face looking out upon inner-city ruins created by a mismanaged welfare state and cracks within the Great Society and the other onto a newfound ethos of greed, unfettered markets, and the ramped up neoliberalism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Culturally speaking, disco and punk rock were done and the experimental culture of New York found New Wave music simply too commercial. By turns, the Pyramid Club became the context for No Wave, an alternative culture against the grain and full of those who are in-between. Artists cadged their banner head “No Wave” from French New Wave cineaste Claude Chabrol who said, as legend would have it, “There are no waves, only the ocean.” There at the Pyramid Club, if only for a moment, time was productively out-of-sync, a condition which is always fertile for those who are in-between absolutes, be they gender, political, or in any way artistic. Unlikely bedfellows made peace as drag queens chummed it up with skinheads, and transition gave way to a cultural revolution, which gave way to an avant-garde scene at the Pyramid Club. The video distills the bawdiness and energy of gay liberation in early-eighties New York, the grand exodus out from the closet into the broad daylight of gay pride parades and hoped-for acceptance. It was also the time of the mysterious “gay cancer,” which eventually was identified as AIDS. The video concludes with “RIP,” and a long list of the deceased members of the scene.

The denizens of the Pyramid club were kynics rather than cynics, to deploy a distinction of philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, a favorite of Moghaddam. If bad faith cynicism is the dominant operating model of late capitalism, then kynicism is its counterstrategy. Sloterdijk’s terms are especially apt as he developed them in the two-volume Kritik der zynischen Vernunft, first published in German in 1982, then later translated into English in 1987, directly in the heat of the aforementioned social, political, and economic transformation. It distills postmodern cynicism and its inherent line of flight that is kynicism. Cynicism, for Sloterdijk, bodies forth most avidly in the form of enlightened false consciousness: the condition of knowing one has false consciousness – that the system is corrupt and one contributes to its corruption – while doing nothing about it. Sloterdijk explains, cynics “know what they are doing, but they do it because, in the short run, the force of circumstances and the instinct for self-preservation are speaking the same language, and they are telling them that it has to be so.”[3] By contrast, kynics practice a dirty materialism girded by cheekiness and mischief. They are unheeded in their forthright animalism and especially canine in nature, connected in deep, profound ways to their namesake, which comes from the Greek kynikos meaning "doglike.” Inhibitions go out the door, as pissing, shitting, and masturbation are encouraged as forms of critical misanthrope and performance art. Like Diogenes of Sinope, who is known as the “dog philosopher,” kynics battle the languid dissimulation practiced by cynics in plain sight with their mischievous performance art that is similarly practiced en plein air. Sloterdijk explains:

Since…kynicism has made speaking the truth dependent on the factors of courage, cheekiness, and risk, the process of truth gets caught in a previously unknown moral tension; I call it the dialectic of disinhibition…The kynic farts, shits, pisses, masturbates on the street, before the Athenian market. He shows contempt for fame, ridicules the architecture, refuses respect, parodies the stories of gods and heroes, eats raw meat and vegetables, lies in the sun, fools around with the whores and says to Alexander the Great that he should get out of the sun.[4] 

Moghaddam found her tribe of kynics at the Pyramid Club, and reinforced her habits of truth telling through forthright body action, moving images, and constructed form.

If in nightlife she devoted her attention to the mechanics of recording, in the day she edged into the digital. In 1986, Moghaddam bought her first home computer, an Amiga, and started tinkering with Paintbox. While completing her BA in Communication Arts at the State University of New York, Empire State in 1992, she worked as a production artist in computer graphics. Over the years, Moghaddam hewed a solid path for other women in art-and-technology and new media, helping to pioneer the field of 3D modeling. After graduating, she worked as an animator for HBO, designing “messy 3D rooms” using fractal animation to create pizza-box-, crumble-paper-strewn spaces that better approximated how people actually live, but within the virtual reality of a digital landscape. Leading up to the new millennium, she showed art work at Postmaster’s Gallery, Dotcom Gallery, Mary Anthony Galleries, Javitz Center, New York Hall of Science in Queens, and Cube Gallery at MIT and participated in many festivals where she was the frequent recipient of prizes and professional recognition. She joined the faculty of the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University in 1996, where she is today Professor of Computer and Digital Art in Media Arts.

In the early new millennium, Moghaddam’s work came full circle, with digitally interactive and immersive pieces drawing out the inchoate qualities of the video footage shot at the Pyramid Club in the 1980s. A recording of Moghaddam at the 2006 meeting of the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques shows the artist guiding an audience of devoted participants. (  She leads them through a series of interactive sequences. Audience members engage with a field of invisible audio- and crowd-behavior-triggered electronic forces generated by motion capture processing. Together, the artist, audience, and digital devices create a mediated collective performance. For this project, Moghaddam worked with Virtual Reality pioneer and MIT Media Lab alumni Flavia Sparacino. Works such as “Computer 69” (2006) [Fig. 3] and “Turgataur” (2006) [Fig. 4] refine the play of figures and technological immersion, deploying the movement of cubic and amorphous shapes without overt reference to the human body. 

Fig. 3: Marjan Moghaddam, Computer 69, 2006

Striking a sense of digital purity, they are explorations of sound-generated form. Both are examples of Moghaddam’s experimental animation in which she used traditional keyframing and direct audio triggering. She choreographed cubic transformations in “Computer 69” to move recursively with a musical composition by Adam Caine. Intermingling the inorganic and organic, Moghaddam describes the blobby digital morphogenesis of “Turgataur” in terms of a “dancing, abstract living organism that is part solid, part fluid.”

Fig. 4: Marjan Moghaddam, Turgataur, 2006

While playing with varying languages of abstraction in these works, the human figure is the central and most powerful leitmotif of Moghaddam’s work. A testament to her love of Renaissance art, Moghaddam sees the figure as a natural attractor, a magnetic basin to which all epochs return. She explains culture and its relation to figural representation in terms of the intertwining of technology and biology: “Every era conceptualizes the figure according to humanity’s moment in evolution.” The contemporary figure is notably robotic and cyborgian for Moghaddam, always a matter of the interface between wet and dry, the biological and mechanical, soft human and hard apparatus.

 Fig. 5a: Marjan Moghaddam,  Venus and Her Adonises , 2012/2014. Digital Painting, 21” X 50” Edition of 10, 37” X 89” Edition of 3. Available as Archival Digital C-Print or Archival Aluminum Print

Fig. 5a: Marjan Moghaddam, Venus and Her Adonises, 2012/2014. Digital Painting, 21” X 50” Edition of 10, 37” X 89” Edition of 3. Available as Archival Digital C-Print or Archival Aluminum Print

In animating robots and cyborgs in digital space, Moghaddam plays out one of the oldest desires of human beings: to recreate humankind in our own likeness. The human penchant to not simply imagine, but fabricate thinking machines is the subject of Norbert Wiener’s GOD AND GOLEM, Inc., a series of lectures published in book form in 1964, and notably the text which Moghaddam cites as the most influential to her practice. While the title elicits the almighty and the manmade Golem virtually on equal terms, the book is primarily devoted to the latter, a figure of Jewish folklore. Appearing in various textual incarnations, the story of the Golem in general unfolds around the hubris of man playing God in his attempting to make man.

 Fig. 5b:  Venus and Her Adonises  (detail)

Fig. 5b: Venus and Her Adonises (detail)

A seventeenth-century version of the myth has a Rabbi molding a Golem, the likeness of man, out of clay so as to use him for work. In his book, Wiener uses the figures, both God and Golem, as metaphorical prisms to explore the potential problems of robotization, or “automatization,” an older neologistic take on the contemporary “automation,” and solutions garnered from the development of thinking machines. He warns against “gadget worshipers,” who fetishize technology at the expense of society.[5] With prescience and foreboding, Wiener wrote over fifty years ago:

No, the future offers very little hope for those who expect that our new mechanical slaves will offer us a world in which we may rest from thinking. Help us they may, but at the cost of supreme demands upon our honesty and our intelligence.  The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.[6]

Fig. 6: Marjan Moghaddam, Venus and Her Muses (2014), Short Excerpt 1080HD 21 X 9 Single Channel CGI Animation with Music. 6:27 Minutes

In Moghaddam’s work, the robot is often a woman, a female Golem, and a tool not to subsume our thinking, working to exteriorize the brain, but one through which to think and understand the self and the world. Perversely, Moghaddam’s virtual robots collapse self into physical body constituting an event of immanence. The idea of a soul gives over to the digital avatar and the robot is an extension of the self, a prosthetic enhancement and mechanical feely for touching virtual and imagined surrounds. Through Moghaddam’s animation the Golem becomes a screen-borne doppelgänger, a combination of the representational and mechanical, or what Wiener called the “pictorial” and “operative” image.[7] In Venus and Her Adonises (2012/2014), Moghaddam has turned the age-old hierarchy of the artist and his female muses on its head. Here the artist is a woman and her muses are male. Yet they are all remarkably robotic in form, making for a posthuman democracy of female and male Golems. [Figs. 5a-b, 6] In Shoot Venus (2014), she is alone, a female Golem moving in space as a solitary figure. [Fig. 7] She shifts in slow motion, swaying back and forth in a field of exploding form, both shot by a camera and an imaginary sniper. Moghaddam choreographed the figure’s movements, using the slow motion beats of the German DJ Persian Empire. The English word “unholy” appears, then followed by Farsi rendered in calligraphy.

She is impervious. This Venus is strong and lifelike but not living. Deprived of death she exists in a world un-circumscribed by mortality. She may bend and waver, but Moghaddam’s Venus – a female Golem – never dies. 

Fig. 7: Marjan Moghaddam, Shoot Venus, 2014. Motion Capture of Improvised Dance and Martial Arts, 3d Modeling and rendering, Digital and analog painting, text (narrative and poetry), calligraphy (Persian and English), Photos, visualized audio from You Tube Protest videos, Graffiti, Special Effects, audio-triggering of visual elements, and computer-generated textures.

[1] David Kalat, The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse: A Study of Twelve Films and Five Novels (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, NC) Unpaginated.

[2] Wiener, Norbert, God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964) 95.

[3] Sloterdijk, Peter, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) 5,

[4] Sloterdijk, 103-104.

[5] Wiener, 53.

[6] Wiener, 69.

[7] Wiener, 31.