‘The Other Apartment’ Offers a Portal Between the U.S. and Iran

What if you could be transported into another person’s lived experience just by visiting their home?

Two artists—one in Pittsburgh, one in Tehran—are putting this idea to the test with )

Over four months this year, the artists worked with a team of fabricators to meticulously recreate Kashani’s Tehran flat, from the wrought iron facade to its distinctive interior spaces to a range of unique personal effects. Visitors to the Pittsburgh locale get to know Kashani through his common household items like a well-worn rug, a favorite art poster, and a shared table, all carefully arranged to match what visitors see and experience when they walk into the counterpart home more than 6,300 miles away in Tehran. Kashani’s furniture has been recreated by hand, including an office bookcase that holds scans of every book he owns. This laborious recreation included scaling the apartment down by two feet to fit into the museum, and reproducing the appearance of its cement and terrazzo floors.

(Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi in Tehran and Tom Little in Pittsburgh, Courtesy of )

Pulling this off anywhere would be difficult enough, but The Other Apartment faced an additional hurdle. Kashani, as an Iranian citizen, is unable to travel to the United States due to President Donald Trump’s 2017 travel ban. Rubin has never been to Kashani’s apartment in Tehran, so the pair had to coordinate their work entirely through photographs, sketches, spreadsheets, and video-chat sessions.

Over the next eight months, the artists will keep both spaces identical—producing exhibitions, programs, and events where every object, video, and performance is perfectly in sync. Currently, the dual spaces host )

The project began with the concept of an American-style TV show. Rubin and Kashani were raised on the same American sitcoms and suspected that, despite growing up in different countries and eras, this format could bridge their cultural divide.

The pair met through a mutual friend and eventually started working together on a project in Cleveland, Ohio, called The Foreigner, where Cleveland residents functioned as real-time avatars for Iranians overseas, each Clevelander was connected live to an Iranian citizen and encouraged to move, act, and speak by way of the other’s commands. The project was enthusiastically embraced by locals, and the two continued to work together on Conflict Kitchen, a local restaurant-cum-art-project Rubin has co-run since 2010 that serves cuisine from countries in which the United States is in conflict, rotating every three to five months. The project, which was launched with Iranian food during the country’s presidential election of 2013, has gone on to present the cuisines of Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, and Palestine, among others. The project has been a huge success, attracting thousands of visitors and hosting related educational programming, including film screenings and trivia nights, organized with the assistance of the local immigrant population.

For this latest project, Rubin hopes to again bridge cultures, offering the rare opportunity for Americans and Iranians to “visit” with each other, via a series of simultaneous events and workshops which are frequently broadcast via Skype.

In many ways, Pittsburgh is a fitting location for The Other Apartment to explore the impact of cross-cultural exchange. Once the “Steel Capital of America,” the city saw its industries and population decline by 50 percent in the 20th century, but has rebounded in recent years with a bustling technology sector focused on robotics, health care, green energy, and biomedical research. A vibrant immigrant population has helped rejuvenate the city’s aging demographics, and the city has a long history as a haven for immigrants and refugees. That includes immigrants from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s and the resettlement of Somalis in the ’90s, to the more recent growth of Latino and Asian communities. According to the Pittsburgh tourism board, over 50 percent of new immigrants come for higher education and healthcare opportunities.

The Other Apartment conjures up a different world for everyone,” says Golnar Touski, a University of Pittsburgh doctoral student of history of art and architecture, and a visiting Iranian citizen who worked on translations for the project. “To the American, it’s a reminder of her kinship with other worlds and spaces. To the diasporic Iranian, it’s an astral projection to home. To the Iranian, it’s a reflection of her own in a faraway mirror.”

So far, the team has found the public response to be both encouraging and unusual. “When we launched the project, we were concerned that, with so many small possessions in the apartment, people might steal things,” said Rubin, but the opposite actually occurred. “People have been leaving things, sometimes very intentionally.” This has included a demo cassette tape with photocopied cover art, which inspired the creators to invite musicians in both Pittsburgh and Tehran to visit and perform cover versions.

“We will be filming their performances in different rooms and presenting them in both versions of the apartment as an exhibition,” says Rubin. The colleagues say they particularly enjoy the way the project now functions as a platform—something left or placed in one space may now materialize in a slightly or radically altered form in the other. “It seems to us an endless series of both casual and intentional loops can be carried out within this new reality we’ve set in motion.”

The Other Apartment Pittsburgh is on view from September 2019-July 2020.

Mattress Factory Museum
500 Sampsonia Way
Pittsburgh, PA
September 27, 2019 – July 2020

More info

Museum of Sohrab
Tehran, Iran
By appointment only

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What is a Community Data Portal and What Difference Can it Make?

A few years ago, I described the need our community of Louisville, KY had for a “third place” for data. At that time, government at all levels were in a boom of the deployment of Open Data portals for a wide range of data–from crime to weather–and presented in a range of accessible forms for download or real-time API feeds. Open data from government is an important first step and the foundation of a solid understanding of the health and welfare of a community. However, what we saw coming in 2014 from the Internet of Things (IoT) and crowdsourced citizen science has proliferated. Data gathered within a community using these approaches has nearly universally meant data stored in either commercial or single purpose non-profit storage environments.

Many communities interested in air pollution, for example, have deployed devices which by default encourage their native mobile app dashboards or their dedicated cloud storage. Our early efforts in Louisville to augment our five EPA monitoring sites with low cost sensors also led to the creation of a data platform for the project and ultimately was not connected to sustainable funding and was taken down two years after launch.

A Second Chance

Two years ago, Louisville tried again, this time in collaboration with the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University. Pittsburgh’s strong environmental justice community inspired us to adopt their odor reporting app called SmellMyCity. In meetings with our environmental justice community we heard two things: 1) Where does the data from our reporting go? And 2) What role does the community play in its governance? It became clear through dialogue that the right answers were that it goes somewhere the community can see it and that the community needs to have a seat at the governing table.

The Superfund Research Program

The U.S. EPA and the National Institutes of Health know that the health of a place can only be considered with an engaged and involved community and it is central to each of their funded Centers. For Louisville’s second chance, we started with the funding and the mandate the University of Louisville had to translate research and bring all stakeholders together when considering the many factors that inform our shared understanding of a place. Many communities around the United States have universities that are part of the program, or have sites of interest to a regional Superfund Center. A group of community volunteers organized and took the challenge to create a data platform that could be used by anyone in the community with data gathered about our community and, importantly, be governed by nominated and self-nominated volunteers. To further bolster sustainability, the project was supported by the University of Louisville Center for Healthy Air Water and Soil which, like the Superfund Center, is part of the larger Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute, which has committed to long term support of the hosting costs.

Welcome The Louisville Data Commons

At the unveiling of this portal, called The Louisville Data Commons, the Mayor of Louisville, the Honorable Greg Fischer, and Grace Simrall, the City’s Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology, joined volunteer data commons community board members to invite every citizen scientist, curious science fair student and place-based nonprofit to consider sharing their data on this portal. The initial datasets on the portal include the SmellMyCity data, tree inventory data from citizen foresters, and the city’s “Clean and Green” audits of trash around Louisville. The source code is free to any community and the governing board has offered to help anyone set up a copy for their community. Great pains are being taken to find a wide range of data types–from birding clubs to student backyard science. Louisville believes that the more we know about our community, the more we can do to reduce inequity and advocate for the policies and programs that really improve lives.

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