PLAN 90: Article
CULTURUNNERS at The Armory Show

Connecting Disparate Cultures through the Production and Sharing of Art

In March, a project co-authored by Azra Aksamija, Assistant Professor in SA+P’s Art, Culture and Technology Program – and including a number of artists and alumni from SA+P – was presented at the Armory Show 2015 in New York City, a leading international art fair and one of the city’s most important annual arts events.   

CULTURUNNERS was part of the Armory’s special ‘Focus’ section featuring artists from the MENAM region of the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean; the project was co-authored with Stephen Stapleton, Director of Edge of Arabia, an internationally recognized platform for dialogue and exchange between the Middle East and western world,

CULTURUNNERS is described as an artistic expedition that aims to connect the US and MENAM regions through the production and sharing of artistic content – including performances, sound and video installations, food production, rituals, social media and adaptable wearables – developed in collaboration with artists who have spent a decade traveling between the Middle East and the United States.

The project debuted in 2014 at the Rothko Chapel in Houston before traveling to MIT for a weeklong series of workshops and a symposium last October.  Its presentation at the Armory Show is a core component of an ongoing US Tour sponsored by Edge of Arabia and its co-founder Art Jameel, established in 2003 to promote positive social change through long-term partnerships with international institutions.

In New York, CULTURUNNERS was sited in a mobile artist studio and broadcast vehicle, in the form of a modified Gulf Stream RV, using custom-built artistic technologies to map, archive and amplify stories and voices from the fair and related communities in New York.  The exhibit featured:

  • YARN-DEZ-VOUS, a giant quilt made of American and Middle Eastern textiles that can be transformed into letterman’s jackets, developed by Aksamija with the help of SA+P alumnae Karina Silvester (MArch’14) and Sooyoung Kwon (SMACT’14) and ACT graduate students Bjorn Eric Sparrman and Gedney H Barclay; videos featured the participation of 20 MIT students and staff members.
  • MENAM ART MAP, an interactive visualization of institutional connections, life trajectories and centers of prominent members of the Middle Eastern art scene exhibiting in the West. Based on information drawn from artist biographies, the map represents the first stage of a project at Northeastern University that involves Dietmar Offenhuber (SM’08, Media Arts and Sciences; PhD’14, Urban Studies and Planning), currently Assistant Professor in the school’s departments of Art + Design and Public Policy. 
  • A NOW for MENAM, a digital calendar that integrates historical and contemporary practices of time keeping across the MENAM region, delivering images, videos, information or text from various sources. Offering a contemporary take on calendars published in Turkey since the 1900s, known as the ‘educational calendar with time’, A NOW for MENAM was created‪ by Orkan Telhan (SM’07, Media Arts and Sciences; PhD’13 Architecture Computation), currently Assistant Professor of Fine Arts, Emerging Design Practices in the School of Design at The University of Pennsylvania.  
  • AUTOLUMINESCENCE, a multimedia installation and performance series using patterns of traditional Islamic art and music as a structure for sound and media surrounding the CULTURUNNERS RV as it travels through the United States. Through light and music, AUTOLUMINESCENCE transforms the RV interior into a space to relax, connect, reflect, decode and/or invent meaning from the surrounding world of media.  Created by Madeleine Gallagher and John Steiner of the Program in Art, Culture and Technology.

Among the other projects hosted by CULTURUNNERS at the Armory Show were FREEWAY, an online broadcast platform exploring connections between the Armory show and MENAM communities in New York; and THE FLYING CARPET, a series of performances by Darvish Fakhr, who used a customized, motorized longboard (long skateboard) / Persian Carpet to travel through selected MENAM communities in New York.

As Lead Cultural and Education Partners of the Armory Focus:MENAM, Art Jameel and Edge of Arabia also hosted a special CULTURUNNERS panel moderated by Renata Papsch, general manager at Art Jameel, featuring Aksamija and alumnus Matthew Mazzotta (SMACT’09) in discussion with Husam Al Sayed of Telfaz 11 and associate curator Ava Ansari of Edge of Arabia.  Following its presentation in New York, the CULTURUNNERS RV is traveling Route 2 from New York to Nebraska.