Dialog in Common

Seyed Alavi: Art, Audience & Lived Realities

Seyed Alavi [SA] is a conceptual and installation artist based in Oakland, California.
pressTranscript from the telephone interview with Markuz Wernli Saitô [MWS] on Sept. 15, 2005.

Signs of the Times

Signs of the Times (2008): A series of iconographic artworks for utility boxes in Emeryville

For our introduction: what is public art for you?
SA: Public art is a complex phenomenon, informed by country, culture, context, language, vocabulary, comprehension. As an artist it is the "current state of being when interacting with the public" that is crucial. It is not that the audience plays a role in a public project. In an ideal scenario, only the I (me, the individual) exists, they (the other) don't matter. You is the public; I means that I am. But with public art I can take you into the present. I cannot impose roses to you which I bring to your house: you might be allergic to roses and cannot relate to them. Compare the public with your neighbor's house: when doing art in communal spaces you are going into the public's house, you're crossing a threshold there with the art you bring in there.

What brought you to work in the public domain, and what importance do have people in your projects?
SA: In the historical context art is segregated, there are class differences. I was looking for a more egalitarian, democratic approach so to say. Culturally I was always interested in the day-to-day, ordinary life type of context.

I am looking up to (historical) Japan: traditional Japanese culture included the arts right into everyday life. There was a spirit everywhere. Art is life and life is art: language by its defining nature distinguishes and separates meanings, so the term art has been removed from life. In Japan aesthetic is part of things everyday, meticulously articulations of life are done with intention which makes the moment more meaningful. Especially in the US the making of everyday life into art is very needed. Here in the US is a gravitation on mass production: if you wake up in suburban America everything is 'bla'. The notion of beauty has been trashed. For me it is about a celebration of life and what's important to you (whatever makes life worth living). I read into the term of "fine art" the process of refining, bringing out the essence.

Is the element of performance part of your artwork and does it influence your relationship to the audience?
SA: It is not like I put on a mask to install a piece because it is part of (my) life. We have many variables which inform the process. (Regarding your approach of interventions, which seem like a study to me): what if we take these interventions and expand it and make it 24 hours a day? Why separate these actions and putting them in a frame? We should strive to remove the frame (instant) and make it something more universally integrated. But I know, there is the expectation and commodification of art. Art which is put on the market. But we should strive for the purity of the situation.

Flying Carpet

Flying Carpet (2005): Aerial view of the Sacramento River that is woven into a carpet for the floor of Sacramento airport.

How do you feel about inserting art into people's lives?
SA: I have no intention of confrontation or making people feel uncomfortable. It is true that sometimes people might take offense: when i did the Carpet at Airport I heard people saying what a waste if their tax dollars that is. I am sad about this that somebody has this reaction because of the (economic, educational) system we live in. As a public artist I should be aware of all individuals since I am concerned about making a moment more meaningful, highlight the instant (spark) of life.

There needs to be a lot of research, a fabric of responsibility which informs my art. I try to understand the raw, archetypical fabric of life. I question everything I do. One cannot hear everything: only few voices are heard. Nobody knows best about what you do than yourself.

Was there ever an occasion when the audience "took over" a project?
SA: So far a project has never completely changed. Because I am listening to the community and go through a process of learning I am prepared.

Where there moments when you were truly connected with the audience?
SA: Again, I perceive the public like a house you go to and bring yourself in: some inhabitants might not welcome what you bring in, and sometimes is like being well received

What difference can public interventions make in people's lives?
I am not subscribed to a political agenda. Initially when I started out I was against the galleries and established institutions of art. Regarding the question of temporary and permanent art: eventually nothing is permanent and will be gone. But the myth will carry on. No matter what one does (like pointing the finger into air) it is there, even it hasn't been formally recorded. There is a historical fabric all forms of life is weaving and there is the permanence of cause and effect.

It is difficult to really isolate the audience as a factor in art making. Basically I see maybe two levels of reality which intertwined have the potential to become a celebration of life:
- the tangible, measurable world (physical)
- the contextual, airy, momentum

Seyed Alavi's work is often engaged with the poetics of language and space and their power to shape reality. Creating objects and asking questions are equally important in his art-making process. For nearly two decades, the Bay Area artist has been working with public institutions to create conceptual works of art to be experienced by passersby. Spark follows Alavi as he offers a guided tour of his art and working process.


Though Alavi produces tangible objects, he thinks of himself as a conceptual artist, that is, the ideas behind his works are centralized over the finished object. Whereas many artists choose to master a specific medium and explore multiple subjects through it, Alavi works in several media. He develops a concept, plans the work for a specific location, then outsources the actual fabrication of the piece.

externalSeyed Alavi's website