August 20, 2019
2018 – 2019
Sara Abbaspour says that leaving her home to study halfway around the world was one of the most difficult things she’s ever done. She left behind her friends and a close-knit family made up of aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters and cousins—lots of cousins. Adapting to life in New Haven was difficult at times. She missed her home, her country and the unique and comfortable places in her hometown she’d known for as long as she could remember. She longed to go back.
It’s a week after graduation and Abbaspour has a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from Yale University—one of the most prestigious schools in the world. She finished her final thesis, and, despite having a great experience in New Haven, she’s ready to go home.
Unfortunately, Abbaspour can’t return home. If she does, she won’t be able to re-enter the U.S.—at least not on her current student visa. You see, Sara is from Iran—one of seven countries on President Trump’s travel ban.
It’s this experience of remembering home and familiar spaces while not being able to go back and visit that inspired her blended reality project in the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media (CCAM).
Titled LostLandScapes, Abbaspour’s project invokes a feeling of longing for spaces that are currently unattainable. Putting on a virtual reality (VR) headset transports you to a floor suspended in space. Silhouettes of nine naked figures pace around at a steady pace with video footage projected across their bodies. As they get closer to you, audio kicks in and gets louder—and the visuals are easier to make out. They’re landscapes whizzing by, footage taken from a moving train or a car, of places Abbaspour knows and that have a special connection to her past life.
Most of the video was shot by Abbaspour in Iran, but some were taken by friends and family in Iran and Europe. This was done because of logistic issues that resulted from not being able to travel abroad the past year since the travel ban took effect.
Spending more than a few minutes in LostLandScapes can be disorienting as you’re bombarded with video and audio alternating in volume as you navigate the space. The figures are haunting, staring straight ahead, only their arms and legs moving in lockstep. They completely ignore you. In fact, they walk through you at times. And once they get to the space’s invisible boundary, they simply do an about face and walk back the way they came, ricocheting back and forth like a game of pong.
According to Abbaspour, the jarring feeling is intentional. She wants you to feel uncomfortable—unsettled even—as you contemplate the figures and landscapes whizzing by, completely ignoring you as they walk through you like they’re on a mission.
One of the few Blended Reality projects this semester that doesn’t have a practical application—LostLandScapes is pure art. It’s meant to evoke a reaction, an emotion—hopefully getting you to think about the lost places that you’ve known in the past.
Abbaspour is a photographer by trade—in fact her final thesis consisted of seven prints that she’d taken of landscapes back home in Iran and around her temporary home in Connecticut. She loves the medium and will continue to focus on photography, but she’s also become fascinated with VR and the immersive possibilities that it presents. And unlike her colleagues in the Blended Reality Project, Abbaspour isn’t completely sold on VR being a tool for good.
“VR can be scary at times,” she admits after giving a demo of her project. “It’s all about bombarding people with information and getting them to disconnect from the reality of the outside world. I want to show people how it can be used in a different way that is more constructive. I want to connect people to a place in real life.”
Walking around the virtual environment that Abbaspour created in LostLandScapes does just that. The ghost-like figures moving past and through you each represent a place that the artist is unable to visit due to political forces beyond her control. You get a sense of sad, unsettled yearning—even if you don’t exactly know what place you are experiencing.
Other than inspiring her blended reality project, the travel ban has benefited Abbaspour in another, unlikely way. Unsure of when—if ever—she’ll be able to return to the U.S., the artist plans to take a year to travel around to various art scenes in cities across the country. She feels that had the travel ban not taken affect, she likely would have gone back to Iran immediately after graduation. In a way, the ban has forced her to stay in the U.S. longer than she planned and interact with Americans who she ordinarily wouldn’t have met.
Not exactly the ban’s intention—but a welcome benefit for us all.