This artist does not have an image.

Print This Page

Tamiko and Zara Thiel and Houshmand

(1957 - )

View the objects by this artist.


As we integrate technology into every aspect of our lives and electronic media enters the mainstream of artistic practice, an infatuation with effects tends to claim precedence over content—a natural response to entering terra incognita. With Beyond Manzanar, artists Tamiko Thiel and Zara Houshmand use virtual reality as their creative tool, marrying medium with message. The diverse experiences of two marginalized populations—Japanese Americans during their World War II internment, and Iranian Americans in the aftermath of the 1979–80 hostage crisis in Iran—become the basis of the viewer’s exploration through virtual time/space. Beyond Manzanar demonstrates that in the hands of artists gifted with both vision and technical expertise, aesthetic and humanistic subject matter may be investigated with tools previously used by engineers, the military, and the entertainment industry.

Thiel and Houshmand conceived of Beyond Manzanar when they were both employed at a company that developed commercial applications for virtual reality. Prior to their employment in the high tech industry, their personal histories provided the needed background for their discovery of virtual reality’s potential as an artistic medium. Thiel is an American new media artist of Japanese and German decent whose great-grandparents were detained in the Topaz internment camp during World War II. Thiel attended Stanford University, earning her B.S. degree in 1979, with an emphasis on human-machine interface design. She later studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, concentrating on computer graphics and visual imaging, followed by the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich, Germany, where she earned her diploma in applied graphics in 1991, with a concentration in installation art and video. At Worlds, Inc., she was creative director of the award-winning Starbright World Virtual Playspace for seriously ill children, created in collaboration with Steven Spielberg. Houshmand approached the project from a more literary background. An Iranian-American writer, theater artist, and multimedia designer, she grew up in the Philippines and attended the University of London, in England, where she earned a B.A. degree in English literature. For many years Houshmand worked as an instructional designer for interactive media, producing educational and training software for the healthcare and software industries. She was employed as an executive producer at Worlds, Inc., where she helped to pioneer the development of virtual reality on the Internet, when she met Thiel.

Houshmand and Thiel had been colleagues for several years when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred April 19, 1995. Through their discussions of the intolerance they witnessed in the aftermath, the idea for a virtual reality art piece—Beyond Manzanar—was born. They pondered “how to shape a dramatic experience that has an emotional arc … and yet give viewers the freedom to find their own way through the environment and make their own discoveries.”1 They decided to locate viewers “inside” the Manzanar War Relocation Center, one of ten camps at which Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, noting a resemblance between the high desert of Eastern California and Iran’s mountainous landscape. Standing in front of a wall-size projection, viewers experience the installation by using a joystick to navigate through the camp. Movement is restricted by the barbed wire fence surrounding the network of barracks. As one advances around the virtual space, layered histories are interwoven through documentary images, talking and singing voices, planes zooming overhead, newspaper headlines, and poetry.

At the heart of Beyond Manzanar lie two gardens that all virtual travelers eventually encounter. One is a formal Iranian garden, symbolizing the cosmic order of paradise, its long reflecting pool lined with trees. The other is a Japanese garden, depicting the sacred islands and ponds of the Buddhist Western Paradise. Although based on divergent cultural traditions, the gardens share structural similarities and represents a compelling vision of paradise, an oasis into which the beleaguered outsider can find respite from the intolerance of the outside world. Thiel and Houshmand present the garden as Beyond Manzanar’s central metaphor: as an ancient form of virtual reality, these natural environments offer freedom from the emotional impact of confinement through the power of memory and fantasy. —J.N.

1. Zara Houshmand, “Never to repeat. Hopefully. Art inspired by prejudice,” The Iranian, 12 December 2000, (accessed April 18, 2004).

(SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

Your current search criteria is: Artist is "Tamiko and Zara Thiel and Houshmand".