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Concordia grad creating art in the Big Apple

Amir Baradaran’s Transient just one of his internationally renowned visual art forms
July 13, 2016
By Salim Valji

2016 will be a busy year for the New York-based artist Amir Baradaran, MA (media studies) 08. He recently received a grant from the Canada Council of the Arts to curate displays at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and the Art Basel stage in Miami, Fla.

In July, he joined Columbia University’s Computer Science department (CG and User Interfaces Lab) as a creative research associate.

Amir Baradaran Amir Baradaran received a Canada Council for the Arts grant to curate displays in Istanbul and Miami, Fla.

Despite the international success of his visual art installations, Baradaran’s inspiration started right at home.

Thanks to a grandfather who was a singer and poet, the Iran-born Baradaran was surrounded by books and art at a young age. While his grandfather was between publishers, there were rooms in the family home that were literally filled with books.

After he moved to Canada at age 13, however, his priorities shifted. “I moved towards sciences, and I started studying pre-medicine, political theory and gender studies,” Baradaran says.

“I never pursued artmaking per se, and I feel like that is the case for a lot of people of colour. They don’t see social mobility in fields that are related to the arts.”

He received his undergraduate degree from McGill University in 2004, then earned a master’s in media studies at Concordia in 2008.

Baradaran’s focus moved towards pursuits that could land him a nine-to-five job. What brought him back to the arts was both a sense of disillusionment — and a spontaneous purchase in 2006.

“One day I had $200 in my pocket, and back in the day $200 in Montreal went a long way,” he recalls fondly.

“I went to a dollar store and I bought canvas and paint and I started painting. Six months later I was chosen as one of the Artists of the Year by the City Hall of Montreal, and the art works were displayed at City Hall.”

New York provocateur

Baradaran’s career soon took off. In 2010, he created an interactive art installation called Transient.

For a week that year, some 1.5 million New York City taxi commuters were greeted by profound — if slightly startling — visual art in the back of their cabs.

Image from Transient, by New York City-based artist Amir Baradaran, MA 08 | Photos courtesy of Amir Baradaran

Between September 9 and 15, passengers in 6,300 taxis faced a video display of a driver staring back at them. In some instances the driver had a look of anger or worry in his eyes, while other times it was just a simple glance.

“It made me think a little bit about what goes on in the driver’s head. Usually I just sit in the back of the cab and I complain that it’s not going fast enough or that we’re in traffic,” one commuter said.

“So it’s interesting, and it changed my perspective a little bit on the whole taxi experience.”

“There was a time where in New York everyone was talking about cab drivers as thieves. There were inaccurate articles that mentioned that 75 per cent of these cab drivers were thieves, and it was quite troublesome for me,” Baradaran says.

“I looked at the demographics of that professional group, and I realized that the vast majority of them are people of colour and almost all of them are first-generation immigrants, and 50 per cent are Muslim.”

It was a sense of empathy that inspired Baradaran to collaborate with AME Projects — a program promoting contemporary visual artists — on Transient, whose impact was felt by New Yorkers and tourists alike.

A year after Transient, Baradaran created Frenchising Mona Lisa, an Augmented Reality (AR) smartphone app that features Leonardo da Vinci’s famed portrait donning the French flag.

Its purpose is to “provoke notions of national identity, iconography and curatorial practices within museums,” he says. Baradaran has since been recognized as a pioneer in AR technology.

Baradaran says he’s keen on returning to his Canadian roots. “I hope I can one day expand on these projects and possibly pursue installations in Canada and Montreal,” he says.

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