The Gaze from the Rearview Mirror: Amir Baradaran’s Transient Taxi Ride – Dayna McLeod

The Gaze from the Rearview Mirror: Amir Baradaran’s Transient Taxi Ride - untitled 2 from Transient Series 2010

untitled 5 from Transient Series The Gaze from the Rearview Mirror: Amir Baradaran’s Transient Taxi Ride - untitled 5 from Transient Series 2010 - The Gaze from the Rearview Mirror: Amir Baradaran’s Transient Taxi Ride

The Gaze from the Rearview Mirror: Amir Baradaran’s Transient Taxi Ride - untitled 6 from Transient Series 2010

Amir Baradaran’s New York taxi video installation project, Transient, interrupted Taxi TV’s regular programming during New York City’s Fashion Week in September 2010, transforming everyday cab rides for approximately 1.5 million passengers in 6300 taxicabs. The cab drivers’ steady gaze in their rear-view mirror was captured from the backseat through the plexi-glass partitions to fill these screens in 40-second clips. “The yellow taxicab presents a striking paradox: the car itself is one of the most visible icons of NYC, while its drivers, many of whom are minorities, seem invisible. Recent media reports have inundated commuters with articles portraying taxicab drivers as an ‘other’ class, erroneously intimating that some three quarters of all drivers actively prey on their fare. Even though these reports have since been reassessed and somewhat retracted, they have created a climate of distrust. Baradaran’s reactive installations emerged from this context.” [1]

Dayna McLeod: What does the plexi-glass partition represent for you in your New York City taxi installation project, Transient? How did this project start?

Amir Baradaran: Transient began from observations made as someone new to the city of New York. Riding around in cabs, I was fascinated by the antagonistic stagecraft created by the partition, by the way it created -this is a Canadian expression- two solitudes. It engenders this really perverse economy of vision, the driver and passenger looking in completely different places. More, within the cramped space of a cab you have two totally different modalities: a space of work and a space of leisure. So I started to research the working conditions for cab drivers in the city and the economics of the medallion system and was shocked. It was this confluence of provocative social choreography and exploitative economic structure that was the impetus for the work.

DM: Can you talk about the working conditions that New York City taxi drivers experience, and what impact, if any, these conditions had on Transient? How does the iconic presence of the New York City yellow taxicab influence your project?

AB: The thing that really shocked me was the speculative price of medallions that are traded like stocks. Drivers can no longer afford to own the cab they drive because medallions cost around a million dollars. So drivers start their day in the red and it often takes them half or three quarters of their shift to break even. That is why the majority of them work 12-hour shifts, often restricted by one or two plexi-glass partitions. The city has been cutting back on rest stops for taxis which means drivers can’t even find a place to use the bathroom. Long sitting hours and the lack of facilities has translated into dramatically higher risks for kidney diseases. Drivers are 60 times more likely to be killed on the job and 80 times more likely to be robbed. These difficult working conditions have lead to a shift in driver demographics whereby the majority is constituted by recent immigrants and people of color. Interestingly, New York is literally driven by Muslims as they represent half of the driver community. The sub-text to the piece are these peculiar working conditions of taxicab drivers. But I’m not an academic nor a politician. I feel my role is to open up spaces of speculative experience. I didn’t want to create something where the viewer walks away satisfied by their brief moment of empathy with a driver. Even though the work is so site specific, I wanted something that disorients and produces a line of flight, something that would exceed the stratifying architecture of the cab.

DM: What was your working relationship like with the taxi drivers? How did you approach them? Were they afraid of participating?

AB: I would just go out with my team, hopping from one cab to another, and approach drivers at taxi stands. Though most were enthusiastic about the project, many drivers wouldn’t speak to me on-camera about working conditions, for fear of repercussions and because of ongoing negative media representation. Consider a sampling of headlines from the New York Times over a single week in March 2010:

“NY Cabs Gouge Millions Out of Riders” (City Room Blog, March 12) [2]
“Cabbies Cheat? Riders Express No Surprise” (page A26, March 13) [3]
“Taxi Rip-off” (page A26, March 17) [4]

DM: What was the response like to Transient by passengers? How did you document this response?

AB: I actually sent out my team to record people’s reactions to Transient. It was really varied, from people who were disturbed by the piece to people who had really thoughtful responses to people who just didn’t care for it. I was just pleased that most people seemed to find it really provocative, really thought-provoking.

That said, my interest with Transient was in creating a set of conditions that would make the passenger aware of the space they were in, to activate the space and bring attention to the nature of their commute and the possibilities for transformation therein. Within that reflective space, I didn’t really have an agenda or desire to dictate the viewer’s reactions.

DM: What form does the project take now? (How) will you show Transient in the future?

AB: Well, a body of photographic work (on-going), called Choreograhy of the Liminal, emerged from Transient. A selection of prints from this series (along with the Transient videos) were shown during Miami Art Week as a part of Voyeur, an exhibit organized by Young Patrons of the American Friends of the Louvre. As well, I’ve re-edited some of the video footage into a new three channel, rear projection installation. And I’ve been slowly piecing together a documentary on NYC cab drivers.

DM: Your performance, “The Other Artist is Present” (2010), was intended as both homage to Marina Abramovic’s oeuvre and as a critique of the media hype and questionable metaphysics of The Museum of Modern Art exhibition of her work. Were you nervous approaching Abramovic on her turf? What was your performative exchange with Abramovic like?

AB: Of course I was intimidated, it’s Marina Abramovic! I have loved her work for so long (as I said in Act I of The Other Artist is Present). And I was especially nervous because what I was doing wasn’t just homage but a pointed departure from her performance. That said, what I take from her work is the need for joyous seriousness and serious joking. Making art, making other ways of seeing and understanding, is so important, but must ultimately be driven by a love for world it seeks to expand.

DM: Have you been in contact with Abramovic (or her publicity staff) since?

AB: After my performance, she sent her documentary crew to interview me. I would be honored to be in further contact with her.

DM: What’s next for you? What are you working on?

AB: Another technology-based crazy infiltration, this time in France. The remote opening will happen during a big event here in New York by the end of January.



Amir Baradaran is a New York-based visual and performance artist. Born in Tehran and raised in Montreal, his first sketches took root in his grandfather’s philosophy and the harmony of his mother’s poetry. Baradaran’s artistic practice is marked by a recurring exploration of the cross-section of race and gender.

Submitted by TKO (not verified) on Fri, 12/31/2010 – 18:57.


Submitted by * (not verified) on Fri, 12/31/2010 – 14:06.

This is amaaaaaaaaaazing Amir! I also LOVED your Marina Abramovic intervention. Keep it up. xo