The first iPhone came out closer to the fall of the Berlin Wall than to today; Nirvana’s Nevermind came out closer to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band than to today.
What is now the largest shopping mall in the world opened in Iran in 2018, while malls across America are dying and the Instagram hashtag #mallwave attracts a generation of Insta-natives whose adult lives have lived entirely after the Great Recession of 2008.
Our teeth are all a little bit radioactive now.
In 2012, more pictures were taken every two minutes than throughout the entire nineteenth century. In 2020, something like 1.4 trillion photos were taken.
In Tehran, malls like the Koroush Complex form a kind of liminal space where young, wealthy Iranians can act as if they lived anywhere else in the world of global consumer capitalism.
Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History is propelled ever forwards by a howling storm of progress, while the angel faces the wreckage of the past, helpless to intervene.
I’ve never put this many links into a review before, but it’s impossible to write about Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran without thoroughly embedding the review in the digital space.
On social media, narrative often resembles Benjamin’s view of history, beginning with the present and scrolling into the past; time moves backwards and we can travel infinitely down the rabbit hole. If you tell a story in the traditional way, you pick a beginning point in the past and the story must come to a natural end when you reach the present moment; we can’t go forwards from now. But if you’re moving back through time, how do you know where to stop? Cause follows effect back into the depths of prehistory; you’re doing archeology before you know it. (Alipoor muses about the archeological artifacts that will be left by our own time: a solid layer of chicken bones and the shells of shopping malls.) How do you tell a story that was lived through Instagram in live performance? How do you tell it when your audience, trapped at home by a pandemic, is simultaneously viewing your show in forwards time on YouTube and backwards time on Instagram?
Out of these disparate facts and narratives (plus a whole lot of other information about geologic time, the history of Iran, colonialism, nonlinear time, the detritus of the internet), in a dizzying swirl of Instagram posts, live-streamed storytelling, and archival imagery, writer/creator/performer Javaad Alipoor constructs Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Iran. Alipoor and his fellow performer Peyvand Sadeghian, both British theater artists with some roots in Iran, are speaking to us via YouTube from their separate rooms. But much of the meat of the show takes place on Instagram–via an account that’s opened to the public just before the performance, stocked with posts detailing the history of the two main characters, links to other Instas that provide context, and intermittently going live throughout the show. (The press materials note that Instagram is not strictly required to view the show, but you’d miss a lot, including almost all of the piece’s visual richness, if you weren’t following along.)
The play begins with the crashed Porsche, and then spirals backwards into the story of Parivash and Hossein–a middle-class girl and a fantastically rich son of the revolutionary elite engaged to another woman–using them as a pivot for an investigation into digital culture, postmodern consumer capitalism, global geopolitics, the nature of historical time, and particularly the simultaneous existence of Iran as a post-revolutionary Islamic regime under sanctions from the West and a playboy’s paradise for a class fraction of rich kids who reap the rewards of their parents’ influence without ever feeling their fervor. This duality thrives on Instagram–the public sphere displayed on our private devices, where the rich kids can flaunt their wealth in a way they’re discouraged from doing in “real” life. (Hossein’s father, a participant in the 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah, later becomes a shopping mall magnate, building the world that enables his son’s dissipation and his consumption.) The life of Iran’s struggling working class peeps in unsettlingly around the edges–encounters in mall parking lots and with passersby–but these are things to which Alipoor, not Parivash and Hussein, is paying attention.
I don’t know what it would have been like to watch this show in a theater; I think I might have resented being shifted to the private venue of my phone and Instagram while in a live room. But sitting at home already alone, with my attention drawn back and forth between my monitor and my phone, that interplay has an unsettling resonance; the presence of the rest of the audience is more real and more evident on Instagram. Instagram Live, with its gimmicky, silly filters and effects, feels less mediated than the main performance space. It’s intensely unsettling to sit in the suspension of knowing these people were real, and really died, and really had Instagram feeds, but what we’re watching is a fictional reconstruction–especially as the show proceeds backwards in time to before the existence of Instagram, as the feed winks out. And if it feels like a real loss when you stop being able to enter the small screen and the painstakingly documented lives of Parivash and Hussein, it’s even more of a loss when the feed proves just as ephemeral as the live performance you’re seeing but not in the same space with.
For obvious reasons, I’ve seen a whole lot more digitally mediated theater in the past nine months than ever before in my life. I’ve seen a lot of shows that expanded my ideas of what kind of art could be made in these liminal spaces–but none that made me think so intensely about what it means to mediate and narrate our lives through these technologies as Rich Kids.