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Armory Show is “CULTURUNNERS’” next stop

“CULTURUNNERS” and ACT involve creative individuals across MIT to highlight artistic journeys and exchanges between the United States and the Middle East.
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"A Now for MENAM" by Orkan Telhan
"A Now for MENAM" by Orkan Telhan
Photo: Orkan Telhan

At this year’s Armory Show in New York City, Art Jameel and Edge of Arabia will present the latest iteration of “CULTURUNNERS” as part of the fair’s regional focus on MENAM (Middle East, North Africa, and Mediterranean). The Armory Show, March 5-8, is but one stop on “CULTURUNNERS’” nationwide tour. The project debuted in 2014 at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, before traveling to Boston, where it stopped at MIT for a weeklong series of workshops and a symposium the first week of October 2014.

“CULTURUNNERS” is a Gulf Stream RV-cum-performance/exhibition/broadcast studio that hosts artistic journeys and exchanges between the United States and the Middle East. Azra Akšamija, the Class of 1922 Career Development Professor in the MIT Department of Architecture and an assistant professor in the MIT Art, Culture and Technology Program (ACT), and Stephen Stapleton, director of Edge of Arabia, created “CULTURUNNERS” in collaboration with artists who have spent a decade traveling between the U.S. and the Middle East — from the UK over Yemen to Saudi Arabia and Iran, and from the Balkans over Central Europe to the United States. Akšamija was working on a project called the Islamobile when ACT research affiliate Daanish Masood, a member of the UN Alliance of Civilizations, introduced her to Stephen Stapleton and the Edge of Arabia organization, and the project took its current shape as “CULTURUNNERS.”

The project is a platform for the production and sharing of a range of content, including performances, sound, and video installations, food production, rituals, social media, and adaptable wearables. By developing new “cultural technologies,” “CULTURUNNERS” imports personal narratives and unofficial histories from the MENAM region to audiences in the U.S. Akšamija points out, “Technology can help us create weird and unexpected encounters,” and help us cultivate “cultural empathy through dialogue.”

At the Armory Show, “CULTURUNNERS” will feature custom-built artistic technologies to map, archive, and broadcast voices and ideas from the FOCUS: MENAM section of the fair. The RV will be on site at Pier 92 and Pier 94, and will also take to the road to visit Middle Eastern neighborhoods throughout New York, such as 125th Street in Harlem, and “Little Syria” near Battery Park.

This iteration of “CULTURUNNERS” features projects by Akšamija, Dietmar Offenhuber, Nick Beauchamp, Chris Riedl, Darvish Fakhr, Madeleine Gallagher, John Steiner, and Orkan Telhan. Many of these artists have ties to the Institute. As Akšamija stresses, “this project and ACT facilitate involvement of creative individuals across MIT.” “CULTURUNNERS” at the Armory was curated by Akšamija and produced with assistant curator Jessica Varner, a PhD student in the MIT Program in History, Theory and Criticism of Art and Architecture.


Akšamija’s project, “Yarn-dez-vous,” a growing wearable quilt made of American and Middle Eastern textiles that can be transformed into letterman’s jackets, addresses ideas related to cultural fabric and social identity, or collectivity and individuality. The title “Yarn-dez-vous” plays upon the double meaning of the word yarn and the romance of a rendezvous, Akšamija explains. The jacket design and prototypes were developed with Andrea Boit, Lillian Harden, and Karina Silvester MArch '14. The fabrication team includes Emily Tow, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT; Bjorn Eric Sparrman, a graduate student in ACT Program; and Emma Harden and Elliot McLaughlin. Gedney H. Barclay, a graduate student in the ACT Program, and Sooyoung Kwon MS '14, an ACT Program alumna, produced the project videos, which feature participation of 20 MIT students and staff members.

Another iteration of “Yarn-dez-vous” will be developed in a new course for freshmen in the School of Architecture, 4.S10 (Exploring Design: Thinking Through Making). In this version, Akšamija will use raincoats to signify “shelter for the bigger community.”

“A Now for MENAM” 

Orkan Telhan, assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, holds a PhD in design and computation from MIT's Department of Architecture. He was part of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Laboratory and the Mobile Experience Lab at the MIT Design Laboratory. His work, “A Now for MENAM,” integrates various historical and contemporary practices of time keeping across the cultural geography of Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, eschewing the idea of unifying the different time zones and calendar systems used within this vast geography. The calendar works as a mobile application that delivers images, videos, information, or text from different archives and online sources. The format refers to the calendars published in Turkey since 1900s known as the “educational calendar with time.”  “A Now for MENAM” offers a contemporary take on this format. The calendar also functions as a temporal navigator for the “CULTURUNNERS” RV and customizes its content based on the RV’s travel routes.

“MENAM Art Map”

Dietmar Offenhuber is an assistant professor at Northeastern University in the departments of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and Art + Design, where he heads the MFA program in information design and visualization. He holds a PhD in urban studies from MIT, and degrees from the MIT Media Lab and the Vienna University of Technology. Together with Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor in political science at Northeastern, Christoph Riedl, assistant professor for information systems at Northeastern, and research assistants Armin Akhavan and Rohith Vallu, they created “MENAM Art Map.”

“MENAM Art Map” is an interactive visualization of the institutional connections, life trajectories, and centers of prominent members of the Middle Eastern art scene exhibiting in the West. The geo-spatial network representation is based on information extracted from a large corpus of artist biographies. It represents the first stage of a project dedicated to the analysis of text networks at the NU Lab for Texts, Maps and Networks at Northeastern University in Boston.


“Autoluminescence” is multimedia installation and performance series that uses geometric and mathematical patterns of traditional Islamic art and music as a structure to manipulate transmissions of media and sound surrounding the “CULTURUNNERS” RV as it travels on a cross-country road trip through United States. Through light and music, “Autoluminescence” transforms the “CULTURUNNERS” RV interior into a lounge space to relax, connect, reflect, possibly decode, and/or invent meaning from the floating world of media surrounding us.

Madeleine Gallagher, a media associate in ACT at MIT, is an interdisciplinary artist, technologist, and educator. John Steiner, a media assistant in MIT Program in ACT is a performer, songwriter, and visual artist working in audio, sculpture, electronic media, and design.

“RV Skin-NY” and more

Among the other projects hosted by “CULTURUNNERS” at the Armory are Darvish Fakhr’s “The Flying Carpet” and Edge of Arabia's online broadcast platform, “FREEWAY.” “The Flying Carpet” is a customized, motorized longboard with a Persian carpet attached, on which Fakhr will travel through the MENAM communities of New York and perform. “FREEWAY” will explore connections between the Armory Focus and MENAM communities across New York.

“RV Skin-NY” is an interactive re-skinning of the exterior of the “CULTURUNNERS” RV linked to phase 2 of the “CULTURUNNERS” website (by One Darnley Road), which will be launched on the first day of the fair. Azra Akšamija and Stephen Stapleton lead this piece, which was designed by Kuba Rudzinski.

On Friday, March 6, the lead education partner for the Armory Symposium, Art Jameel, will host a special “CULTURUNNERS” panel discussion, moderated by Renata Papsch, general manager at Art Jameel. Featured panelists include Azra Akšamija; Husam Al Sayed of Telfaz 11; Matthew Mazzotta, artist and former lecturer in ACT; and Ava Ansari, Edge of Arabia associate curator.

The “CULTURUNNERS” RV will then take Route 2 from New York to Nebraska.

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