“Anarchy is misunderstood”
Skirting the strange with a pioneering off-road rally driver
Designer, photographer and environmentalist Xárene Eskander joins British TV writer Matt Graham to philosophise about the concept of utopia and a return to her nomadic Bakhtiari ancestors’ way of life
Note: The following interview has been reconstructed from recorded fragments on a Super 8 tape deck that Xárene keeps in the control panel of her rally car, a 70s’ Cadillac named Dreki Blanco, whilst in transit on the High Road to Taos, New Mexico. Inconsistencies can be blamed on a blank spot on the tape recorded around Truchas.
‘The Tree House’ is a Silent Movie era pioneer house in the hills above Echo Park.
It was once occupied by an unnamed heroin addicted musician who let it deteriorate to a ruin, but is today inhabited by the local power couple; a producer who specialises in shooting in war zones and his former rock star girlfriend. Their legendary parties always host an eclectic cast of characters, and it was at one of these that I started to hear about someone who was continually supposed to make an appearance but was always out of town – Iceland, Istanbul, Tokyo, Taipei…
When I heard about Xárene Eskandar, at first I only got glimpses: she lived between Reykjavik, Iceland and LA, had an AI business founded in Tokyo, and was one of the few female off-road rally drivers of colour in America. When I got to know her and her work, the glimpses became a wider reality. I discovered that she pioneered a new style of photography which is heavily copied and co-opted by artists to the point that some think they developed it.
I learned how her award winning film Driving at the speed of the Nordic sun came on top of a decade of successful design work – not to mention, the fact she regularly organises The Gambler 500 Off Road rally in New Mexico, one of her many adopted homes.
It was time to talk to Xárene
Matt: Hello Xárene. Let’s start here: when asked, what on Earth is that you say you do?
Xarene: I’ve always liked to say I do whatever needs to be done. I follow my curiosity, I like thinking into the far future and immediate problem-solving to get us there. And I get inspired by two very distinct things: technology and nature. I say I’m a designer if I really have to distill things. I’ve been absolutely lucky to get to work on the design of passive solar architecture, yachts, books, clothing, an opera… always looking at how we reduce our effect on the landscape and environment by reducing our need for ‘stuff’. I’ve been relatively successful at living the concept of anarcho-utopianism as a creator of my own work and worlds.
What is ‘anarcho-utopianism’?
Anarchy, and the concept of anarchism, has been misused and misunderstood. Anarchy is self-governance and in the capitalistic world, specifically at late stage capitalism. Anarcho-utopianism is both a reclaiming of my agency and also admitting to the naïveté, but not impossibility, of the concept of utopias. My utopia, my vision of my life and how I’ve tried to live it as much as possible in today’s world, is to return to my nomadic ancestors’ way of life – Bakhtiari of Iran – which was about independence, self-governance and self-sustaining economies. Unfortunately, we see the tools and products of the nomad as just arts and crafts, while in actuality they are a network of mobile tools and technologies of independence by self-sustaining an economy outside of capitalism.
How do your life philosophies fit into this?
I was fortunate to come across the work of American communalist and environmentalist Murray Bookchin in 2005-2006. His anti-capitalist, ecological and democratic vision of human evolution helped me define my political philosophy, which in combination with my life philosophy of Zoroastrianism – the ancient pre-Islamic religion of Iran still survives there in isolated areas – has allowed me to live relatively hassle-free of the governance of oppressive cultures, laws and regulations of economy and capitalism. I know that there are other like-minded anarcho-utopians and I’d like to see us create a majority society founded on the philosophies of Social Ecology.
And what drives you to off-road? (Excuse the pun.)
It’s my escape from reality. I want to live in an endless road-trip. When I’m on dirt roads, exploring the Mojave desert and in the wilderness, my head rushes with ideas. I giggle for no reason when driving my vintage beat up cars and trucks. I’m at my happiest. I’m also driven by pushing boundaries. When you look at my Cadillac, I took a very nice vintage luxury car and turned it into a beast that has not only pierced the bounds of normal but skirts the limits of very strange – and people love it. It was fondly referred to in my posh Los Angeles neighborhood as ‘The IED’ (improvised explosive device). The journey of that car, in a nutshell, is a metaphor for my journey.
I’m pretty solo and like to get myself where I want to go without relying on anyone. My motto is ‘Everything is on the way.’ And to get to everything, you have to take whatever road or tough trail is on the way. But I also feel really good about myself when I make it through to get somewhere that few have been. That’s addictive in itself.
Tell me about your car, ‘Dreki Blanco’…
It’s a 1979 Cadillac de Ville. Your grandpa’s luxury car. It’s just what I found the day before the first rally in November 2017. I didn’t have anything criteria other than keeping it around $500 and utterly unsuitable for off-roading. In Iceland, they call these 70s’ land yachts, Amerískur dreki, meaning American dragon. A friend suggested that, and another suggested Caballo Blanco (white horse in Spanish), so I just mashed up the Icelandic with So-Cal Spanish and it sounded good.
He was a really nice vintage car when I bought him but after each rally he got beat up more. First he lost his muffler and exhaust which made him roar! Then he lost his bumper; I patched his gas tank a million times; cut out extra stuff from the engine to gain horsepower here and there; chopped the trunk at some point so I can access tools easier; added jerry cans so I can drive further; and eventually gave him a 6″ lift with 30″ tires so I don’t keep tearing the gas tank. He’s been on some pretty tough trails in Arizona and New Mexico. It’s such a fun car I ended up selling my Audi.
What’s it like being a woman in male-dominant off-roading subculture?
It is important to address this. The off-road community is actually very supportive of women. It comes down to women putting aside any kind of fears and hesitations of inadequacy if faced with car trouble, and cultural upbringing, such as mine where I was not raised around immediate family members or friends who were off-roading. I was faced with concerns of “it’s dangerous”, “what if you break down?”, etc. I got into off-roading because I put aside fears and followed my curiosity and sense of adventure. I was fortunate to have a very supportive friend who patiently addressed the fears and anxieties I shared with him.
Why is there a perception of the off-road community as male-dominated?
That’s because of the media that represents the automotive communities. For example, I coordinated a three-day Gambler 500 rally in Iceland. I created the route and ran recovery. The vehicles and their insurance was coordinated by one of my female friends, and there were five female participants – one who won the prize for navigating the most difficult and unfamiliar terrain under the most difficult and stressful conditions with one of the most unreliable vehicles.
When Automobile magazine – a magazine I had a subscription to from the age of 13 and through college where I studied automotive design – sent a writer and photographer to the event, out of 177 published images of the event, every single woman, including me, the organiser, was eliminated from the story. The writer gave a lame excuse for himself and the editor-in-chief never responded. So the question should be directed to media outlets on why there are not more women contributors in their publications. If more women see representation in the community and its coverage, more will participate and we won’t see the off-road community as male-dominated and me as breaking a boundary.
Talking of breaking boundaries, how did you end up pioneering a new style of photography?
In 2008, I started a photographic and video project that led to the development of a new methodology for environmental data visualisation that has since been widely and wildly uncredited by artists, research and academic institutions like Thomas Reuters worldwide – some think they developed it! I call it Realtime Lapse aka ‘time slices’.
The Salton Sea Storm picture is the first image of its kind. Where I worked then alternated between a fishing spot, a kissing spot, a garbage dump, and a tranquil bird-watching stop along the winter route of birders. I made the image in January 2010 after weeks of trial and error. The methodology was published as an IEEE paper in 2013.
I guess I’m quite proud that I created something that many lay claim to. LOL. But that’s been my modus operandi for years, and it’s what keeps me creating more novel concepts and ideas. I can say I’m proud that any work I have made over the last 15 years has either been exhibited or awarded or published and made a contribution to culture and knowledge.
Would humans of 1,000 years ago see us as superhumans?
Perceptions of the body are ideological. Unfortunately, the most archaic of ideologies are ruling what bodies should be and do. I see technology not as a liberator but as a tool whose end goal is to assist humans in achieving what we currently see as the superhuman. Why can we not see ourselves evolving into the future as so? Why are we a society stuck on transphobia and misogyny? My early tech-art from 2007-2009 delves into breaking the scales of architecture and body with kinetic wearables that I designed in knits and modular origami. Around the same time, I began developing techniques in photography and video that allowed the shifting of the perception of the body.
Given the technology at our disposal, what are we going to do about environmental issues?
Tech cannot do anything alone; it empowers us to do something. The currently accepted environmental sustainability guidelines (ESG) are not going to work for 2050 and the tech is there to back me up on that and offer alternate solutions. But that’s something no one wants to talk about. This question brings up one of my favourite topics: the othering of technology and AI and the resultant self-dissolution of our agency. We do that in our relation with our government, too.
I set up my AI company, Machinic Phylum, to crunch big climate data – to address exactly the problem of land use, risk assessment and environmental mitigation. Companies, academic institutions and government organisations have collected copious amounts of data over decades and we continually have the technology to process and analyse it. My lofty hopes were that seeing the real-time detrimental effects of our actions before they happen would lead to effective legislation to correct climate change.
With all this in mind, what keeps you up at night and what are you genuinely optimistic and hopeful for?
What’s my greatest fear? Stagnation. Nothing keeps me up at night because I’ve learned to filter the shit of the world because I need my beauty rest. On the positive side, what I do stay up at nights for is the excitement of making new work and solving aesthetic problems… and editing photos. It’s a very therapeutic and meditative act for me.
Lastly, what three things can we do to create a better world?
Glad you asked.
All industry must be run on nuclear power. It’s clean, extremely efficient, and we have the technology and science to make it safer. The problem is that because people are scared and uninformed, funding and research are not put into nuclear technologies to the point that we are in dire need of a new generation of nuclear engineers.
All homes and businesses should install their own solar power independent of the commercial energy grid. Everyone can do this now. It requires knowing what your energy needs are, I can recommend systems. It also requires us to become efficient and aware users. Ask me how.
Universal Basic Income and Universal Healthcare for whoever wants it. Vote! Get active in community and government. Whomever doesn’t agree that we need a healthy, educated, and relaxed society – basically a civilised society – can fuck off.
Beyond this point, the recording becomes inaudible.
Inspired by Xárene Eskander?
Now read her photo essay about being stranded in black lava for three days
What’s so good about this?
Follow your curiosity. Xárene wants people to challenge themselves. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, said Franklin D. Roosevelt, perhaps America’s greatest president.
To be inspired, learn more about the rally car driver and AI artist’s work on her website. A curated selection of photography is for sale here.
Meet the writer
Matt Graham is a TV writer, originally from London, now based in Los Angeles. He’s the writer of the hit series Oliver Stone’s: The Untold History of the United States, a great many TV scripts for Hollywood, short fiction and a novel, The Night Driver. He’s the survivor of a plane crash in Panama and a roadside mock execution in Nigeria, and has worked as a crime reporter in South America, as well as a ranch manager in Colorado. He’s lived all over the world, and his great unifying passion in life is the search for the sleaziest bars imaginable. Sometimes he wakes up wondering whether or not it’s all just been a strange dream – the kind that jolts you from REM at 3am and leaves you staring at the ceiling. Follow @muzurphulus.