MICHAEL ASHKIN

Adjnabistan

(description of project for exhibitions at Andrew Kreps and Palais de Tokyo)

The Name:

“Adjnabistan” is the name of the anti-nationality I invented with a friend while traveling through
Iran in 1978 during the last months of the Shah’s reign. Derived from the Arabic/Farsi “adjnabi”
(“foreigner,” “stranger,” or “other”), this land of impossible origin proved useful since as an
American one needed to avoid treacherous political discussions. If said with the proper lightness
of tone, “Adjnabistan” could provoke a smile or even be accepted without question. In any event,
I could not be accused of falsehood or insincerity, since the more I used this word, the more its
inherent alienation seemed appropriate to the situation. As I traveled I developed mental images
of this imaginary land and though they shifted as in a dream, they empathetically incorporated the
political and economic distress evident in the landscapes through which we passed.

The Project:

Recently, I decided to revive the idea of Adjnabistan in order to encourage its utopian
possibilities. For me, Adjnabistan begins as a process of thinking and speculation not tied to a
specific physical manifestation. If for a time it assumes sculptural form, this is only to establish a
preliminary relation to the material world -- Adjnabistan aspires, finally, to overcome the
limitations of art. Its future lies in the reintegration of art, politics, ethics, philosophy, technology
and daily life when the separations implied in its name, Adjnabistan, become meaningless and
disappear.

The First Stage:

The first experiment involved an urban model functioning as a three-dimensional drawing. As a
basis of working, I acknowledged and attempted to offset two related and oppressive qualities of
utopian thought: first, that the logic of spatial organization is political and is based on exclusion
as much as inclusion; second, that utopian projects develop an idealist space at the expense of
the material reality. The project thus became a dialectical thinking through of the conflict that
exists between imaginary models of societal perfectibility and the structural limits of reality.

To illustrate the extreme version of the schism between ideas and means, I imagined Adjnabistan
as a community at the far end of exclusion, i.e., as a squatter/refugee/concentration camp built
from used or abandoned shipping containers, situated in a fringe wasteland. I cast them in the
form of a miniature urban model (made from cardboard on a sheetrock base) in order to give
material form to my imaginings and register historical evidence. This model was treated as
ongoing and could be in theory be endlessly modified. (The small piece exhibited here is a study
for that larger model.)

The project developed accordingly, with three forces asserting themselves: the inhabitants’
hopes and aspirations; the social, political, and economic constraints they encountered; and
finally, my own conflicting interests and desires. As the process unfolded, fences were built, torn
down and rebuilt to new purpose. Watch towers became guard towers. Family compounds
became prisons. Structures too grandiose were dismantled and scavenged. The town
underwent cycles of overflow and attrition. Populations thrived, perished or set themselves adrift
in the surrounding desert.

The Flag:

The flag included here is only one possibility and was made from the most readily available
material (in this case, a black plastic garbage bag). It contains a rectangular opening in the
shape of a negative sign, shipping container, or holding cell window. The opening renders the
flag (and Adjnabistan) incomplete, transforming it from a static signifier of the ideal to a
framework for the conflict between this ideal and the material world that surrounds it.

Michael Ashkin, 2005