My work is only finally about rituals. It is first about people. It is about large groups of people and about how they do things, socially. My work is a journey away from the self to the group. Perhaps a quest, perhaps an escape, perhaps none, maybe both. Time will tell.
Ian White: The questions I want to ask are in a way more general, rather than tied to a chronology of your work. They are about more structural or philosophical, or even psychological things that underpin the work, and how they might have changed, or your understanding of them might have changed over the period of time that you have been making them. Maybe we could do it in three sections: in the first section to try and talk about process, in the second to try and talk about theatre in relation to the film and video work that you make and in the last section to talk more specifically about rituals and how the video work is related to your PhD and a wider understanding of rituals.
To start with, maybe you can talk a bit about your process and whether you think that has changed over time? Because one of the key things I think for anyone to understand your work is the embedded way that you occupy a position within the community or the situation that you’re also documenting.
Köken Ergun: But it wasn’t like that before. I think the process started with WEDDING, and TANKLOVE was a breaking point. Before TANKLOVE, if you look at the works, there are not many, the first one is my headscarf piece, Untitled which goes more towards theatre and my acting experiences. Then if you look at I, Soldier and The Flag I am not embedded, I am part of it because that’s my culture. As a school child I had been repeatedly subject to this kind of patriotism. In that stadium, as an adult, I was re-experiencing what I had to go through in childhood. The people that I filmed, I didn’t like them. I had a curious sense of vengeance in me while shooting them. And I remember very well, that I felt great relief the moment I finished shooting the ceremony and left the stadium, almost like running away. I laughed back at the people and the situation in the stadium, and everything they represented for my childhood. I felt that at that moment I overcame all those childhood traumas. So in a way, by making a work about these experiences, and fears, I was able to heal myself.
And then came WEDDING which was in between. So what I realise about WEDDING now is that it was the first time that I kept going back again to the subject, again and again and again. It was really great, it was fantastic. They were really memorable moments of my life when I was going into the wedding hall, meeting this energy. I always compared it with Berghain, this big nightclub in Berlin, and that’s very important for me. The energy when you go into Berghain, the moment you enter, it hits your body, your chest, it is the music and the sweating and all these things. It’s a great energy! And clubbing is one ritual which I grew up with because I was a big party boy in Istanbul and I’m still close to it. I was never partying for erotic reasons, I was never partying in order to find friends, I was partying because it was really a part of my life. Later in my life, through WEDDING, I found out that there are similar energies to this kind of getting together. As soon as I entered the wedding hall every Friday or Saturday night, I felt the same energy that I would be subject to maybe four hours later the same night in Berghain. Usually the sequence would be that every weekend I would come to Berlin from my residency in Bremen, go to the weddings then drop my camera at my friend’s flat, take a shower and go to Berghain or some other nightclub because I was really discovering the city with this social nightlife ritual. I kept going to more weddings and I was always comparing it to the energy of our young groups trying to get together. “Muscular bonding” is happening there. It’s called muscular bonding in anthropology because it’s the dance. You know, people moving together and becoming one through dance. It was actually much more fun at the weddings than the clubs.
Because of the fact that I shot them for six months over and over with little breaks in between, WEDDING was the first project where I was, you could say, “embedded”. But still, I am Turkish, they are Turkish, maybe a little bit different: Turkish-German, but I do read the cultural codes very easily. For me what I understand from embedded is that you come from outside and you are experiencing some life with the people. If you are already in the community you are not embedded. The embedded thing really starts with TANKLOVE when I went to Denmark, a place that I’d never been and is completely different from my culture. I’m close to European culture, but Denmark was still exotic for me. I mean if there is anywhere exotic for a Turkish person, it’s Denmark; the silence of the streets, work stopping at 3pm, people waking up at 6am, having their lunch at 11am, having dinner at 5pm. And there I was, really enjoying working with this group of people living in a small, poor town. On the other hand, that project was commissioned and supported with quite a large amount of money so I got high and went out of my usual track.
I.W.: Which track do you mean you went out of?
K.E.: Well in my previous projects, like in I, Soldier and The Flag as well as WEDDING, it was just me, my camera and the people. But in TANKLOVE I saw money, and I thought I could do something bigger with it. Many people might think that short films lead to feature films. Or short video works lead to larger video works. And I did feel that too perhaps. I thought with this project I would go bigger. I was yearning for the kind of fancy presentation that I see in museums. Big HD projections, hygienic quality… I was not mature in my standing at that time. I couldn’t say yet, “Well, I like it my way.” I was still following a general trend. Trying to write a script before shooting, even before going to Denmark, I was stressing myself to become more of an “artist”. There are many facets to the story of TANKLOVE, not only the embedded!
So I went to Denmark and I really worked very obsessively… For example, I wanted to see all the locations around me. So I travelled around Denmark. I was going through towns secretly at night, taking a metre ruler with me. It can be quite dangerous to do this in Denmark because they are really small towns and people can be really suspicious of you… I had this idea of the tank penetrating a window. So I was trying to test if my tank, the one that I would rent, would go through a window. Its canon was 1.4 m or 1.8m high. So I was going into the town, parking my car, a complete stranger sneaking around and measuring windows. I was doing this with great pleasure. The initial idea was that the cameras would be put inside the windows of the buildings, the tank would pass in front of them and all sorts of things like this. But then again I didn’t use professional actors, I used the people who were in the town. I didn’t “cast” anyone. But still it was planned as if it were fictional. And then we tried a lot of mechanical things, a lot of tests to prevent the asphalt from being destroyed when the tank was manoeuvring to go into a house. We even removed the frame of a window from our friends’ house to be able to penetrate into their bedroom! In the end I had too many people around me and it really turned into a film set. At that moment I realised that I had lost control of my aesthetic judgement, everything.
This first part of the shooting was fictional, like theatre—film crew, actors—and that really strangled me. And most of the expenses incurred for the shooting were for these fictional parts, which weren’t included in the end. The improvised second part, where the tank stopped on the main street was more interesting. It would have been easier just to get the tank in place, have it sit there for 15 minutes and send it back the same day. But I only realised this once I’d experienced it. Actually the decisive moment of this project was when we took the group picture with everyone sitting on the tank. This was the moment that also connects to my later work. I wanted this photograph to be taken just to keep a memory of my friendship with the people there. I never thought it would be an artwork. When I finally printed it I said, “This is actually 50% of the work.” So later when I installed the work I placed this picture on the wall opposite the film projection.
What started as an idea for fiction turned out to be something quite documentary. And I put myself back into the track.
I.W.: But in a way you were returning to a process that had already been established rather than turning away from that into something which was new. So it was a realisation that maybe the initial work did have a process and that you could feel secure within that, rather than it being a turning point as in a change of direction.
K.E.: Exactly. A realisation point about documentation. But I also found out that I am more comfortable spending a long time with the subjects that I’m dealing with and I also discovered something new about representation: it occurred to me that the traces that the tank left in the town are never to be exactly recorded. Actually they are the most memorable thing that stays with me, but the audience cannot see this. I mean, that was the first time I asked myself questions about how you can represent this experience, of the joy with the people… Well, the photograph is a good representation of it because if you see their faces, they’re all smiling. But the work also became about the difference between how you can represent something and what you remember of it.
I.W.: There’s another important question here, to do with the sense of two things: one—permission, two—recording. And I think that that is connected to whether you regard yourself, in making the work, as speaking for your subjects, and who you are speaking to. Maybe the first thing is an idea about authority. There is a kind of cultural authority that you assume in making I, Soldier and The Flag which was generated by a deeply personal reaction in relation to these very public situations. Somehow that is where the permission came from, which seems to be extended in the other works through this sort of durational engagement with their subjects.
K.E.: I think I take permission during the process of gaining trust. But not for egotistical reasons to turn that trust into an autonomous artwork to be shown to other people. I don’t feel comfortable if I don’t have the trust between me and the people I am shooting. In I, Soldier or The Flag I didn’t have that trust because I didn’t personally get permission from the people I filmed, but the situation was already a public offering. So generally there is permission that you can shoot. But I was obviously going one step further in those works. I was getting close to the subjects; they couldn’t say anything to me because they were performing at the time.
There were these moments when I felt in the WEDDING recording that I got too close to a couple of subjects, especially when they were collecting the money. For almost an hour I had been shooting the money table, pretty close, and they were really wondering why was I there, always directing my camera at the money. I felt I was not accepted and I stopped shooting. I walked away. I could have shot more because they were just about to start collecting gold, but I wasn’t sad that I didn’t. It could have been very interesting. But I think I have some moral, ethical… I think I relate to the people who are subjects of my art works just like friends. If I cannot communicate with them, I cannot film them so much. First I have to gain their trust by spending time with them. For example, with the Shiite community, I first went to the Ashura ceremony in 2009. I shot that without knowing anyone, it was a test. Then I called them, then I met them in their neighbourhood, Zeynebiye, we had tea, we had lunch… I’d been amazed by the massive spectacle they’d put on stage, but was sorry that the video recordings were very poorly done. Every year they publish a DVD of the theatre play and send it to other Shiites around the country. So I told them that I wanted to come back next year and shoot it with more cameras, and they would be able to use that footage to make a better DVD of their performance. Back in Berlin I was talking to them on the phone regularly, discussing how to make a better video recording of the theatre piece. We decided that I must be there for the rehearsals. So the next year, I started going to the neighbourhood one month before the Ashura day. For the first week I didn’t have any video cameras with me. I just sat in the mosque and watched their rehearsals. We started talking and I explained to them what I wanted to do. When the right moment arrived I asked their permission and started shooting. But there were still some people in the community that I didn’t feel were comfortable being in the frame, for example the ladies who were playing the angels, so I didn’t film them. So for me, to your question of permission, it’s mutual: the permission is not only given but I am trying my best to take it. But not like bureaucratic permission that, “I got the paper, I got the signature, now I can do whatever I want”.
I.W.: I am not so interested in terms of, say, legal requirements, or even necessarily in terms of an ethical idea. I am more interested in how you feel like you’re speaking for these people? Are there repercussions for it in terms of how the artwork is received? Who the artwork is addressed to and who is speaking?
K.E.: This is the question I always ask myself. Who the artwork is speaking to is never really known. I mean it can be shown in one context or in another. There is an audience out there which you kind of feel as a cloud but you can’t really name. You can’t see the shape, you don’t see the colour of that cloud, you don’t know where it’s going to come from. So I think that you must be ready for many occasions and that many people around the world with many different mindsets can see this work. I feel quite open to their different approaches. As for speaking for, I don’t think I can speak for them. I can only speak for myself. So all the things I’ve done so far, even including my research into the B’Tselem archives, always had personal things in them. I don’t want to turn this into personal therapy but I feel that I, as I said, as you see in the pictures, I am always in the middle… I have to be protected by people. You might know this saying: “We came into this world on our own and we will die on our own.” People say this to me when I feel alone and depressed. But I like the group. I really enjoy it and I wish I had a large family for example… There was mother, father, brother and me. There was never a large number of relatives. It was never a big family. It was also a family that worked very hard and we were successful kids going to the good schools. It was never leisure exceeding work time, it was usually work exceeding leisure time. I was very ambitious, still am, but less so. This ambition made me blind to leisure, leisure not meaning simply fun. I was very surprised when I heard in ancient Greek that “leisure” and “activity” are actually from the same word stem. In the old times the students would have leisure and work together. If you look at the school of the ancient Greek tradition there is a lot of time for leisure—just the fact that these philosophical dialogues have leisure in them: it’s obvious they are eating while talking, they are having fun. But I didn’t grow up like this, I grew up with targets. I was never somebody who was just relaxed. Now I know that during leisure time good things can come to your mind. But back then it was the contrary: I had to work so that good things would come to my mind. That’s one thing.
The second thing is the group situation. I was in a group when I was working with Robert Wilson, and I loved it. It was wonderful. But unfortunately in our modern world, people… they are not pushed to, but they kind of have to be on their own. And this is something that I see and live in my own life. But if you look at all my works, all the subjects are not singular individuals, they are always situations where groups live together and define their identity through group rituals.
So there is something personal in my interest in groups. I am actually speaking for myself. I never thought that I would speak for the Filipino community in Israel. They are sometimes very proud that I’m representing them, but I cannot, I’m not Filipino, and I’m not a woman, it’s that simple.
I.W.: And how do you then understand, say, the interplay between information and interpretation or impression in the work?
K.E.: You mean how I inform the audience, how the audience interprets my work?
I.W.: Well, it seems to me that both these things are present in the work, that there is information which is almost kind of educational, providing an audience with a certain kind of ethnographic information. I wonder how you understand the interplay of that with the personal?
K.E.: It’s true. But again, I am not thinking of the audience when I’m editing. I shoot everything that my eye sees. When I turn to the left I want the camera to turn left with me. I don’t want to miss anything. That’s why I sometimes shoot excessive amounts in the projects. My projects are not made with big budgets, but with a lot of crew. I want four cameras to be there, three photographers to be there. I don’t want to miss any details. Then during editing my personal curiosity comes into the work. I think the interpretation that occurs comes out of curiosity. And I feel the right to laugh at things that I recorded which they have done. Ethically or morally I don’t feel that I’m showing a bad side of their situation by doing this. The comic moments are not only something negative, they bring more reality to the work… I do include some really abstract moments of the recordings. And the way that I’m putting them together makes the audience laugh. For example, when I show Binibining to Turkish people or to Israelis, they do find it funny but they also find what is going on there in the film extremely sad. But they’ve never asked, “Aren’t we laughing at them?” or, “Aren’t you presenting them in a bad way?” The question came twice instead in Germany, once in an art school and once in a talk. I had to reassure them, I said, “I have no intention of laughing at them. But I want to bring the fun out of it because it was fun.” And I feel so inside the community that I can also laugh at them, just like I would laugh at my own community. Of course it is easier when I can answer back to the audience individually. But when they come to the exhibition of course they might think, “Oh!? But this is a little bit like making a gimmick out of it.” But it really depends. My experience says it really depends on where the audience comes from, how its mindset works and how it sees representation and interpretation…
I.W.: But you’re the one who controls what the viewer sees.
K.E.: Do you think?
I.W.: Yes. You choose the images and the order that the viewer sees them in. The viewer doesn’t choose what’s in the work.
K.E.: Okay. But how do you explain that some people don’t react like that and some people do? This I haven’t found out yet.
I.W.: That’s something else entirely! But you are the one who is responsible for choosing things that are literally in the work. At the same time I don’t think there is any accounting for interpretation. I mean there wouldn’t be any point in making a piece of work if you could prescribe exactly how it was going to be understood or interpreted. You might as well just write it down and not bother. But I wonder if this sort of relationship between information and the personal in your work relates to something which is obliquely political, for example.
K.E.: Can you open that out a bit?
I.W.: Well, if you were thinking in an art-historical way, how for example the personal or the everyday, as introduced into art practices, have been understood politically to undermine, say, spectacle or, for example, a patriarchal system which otherwise excludes any acknowledgement of personal life or interpretation or difference. So that in your work when you are talking about it coming from a personal perspective, what’s the relationship between that and the nature of the thing that you are recording? Are those things kind of in tension with each other? Is the personal in some way undoing or revealing something about the social or political structure that you are also documenting?
K.E.: It must, in one aspect, yes. But there are so many levels of information, especially with these groups of people that I am shooting. It’s not possible for me or for many people, I think, to show every aspect. So what do I focus on? I’m just thinking now as we speak… Yes, there is definitely something political, or maybe more sociological in them. First is my amazement with the group dynamics, my attraction to it, my curiosity about it. Secondly there is a critique in what I’m doing, especially in the weddings. If you ask, what was the personal problem that made you put the money sequence so forcefully in that? I was completely annoyed by the way that the money was taken. Unlike in the film, in reality it was conducted in complete silence, there was no music. At that point I didn’t realise that that was quite a positive exchange-of-gifts system. I discovered this only now during my PhD reading, and that’s the point. Yes, in the video it becomes a very strong critique against, I wouldn’t say patriarchy, but I would say machismo. And this is what I grew up with in Istanbul. There was this fake macho, rude, vulgar culture. Not only because I’m gay. It’s not related to it. This situation bothered me for so long. And then here I am outside of Turkey, in Germany. And even here in Germany I was subjected to more of it. So it’s not money, it’s the power. It’s the way those men are dressed. It’s the way they are holding the money. It’s the way they are so serious about it. There is no humour in that part of the work or in that part of the ritual. They are really that serious, trying to note everything down. And I didn’t like them. They relate more to the guy who is reading the poem in I, Soldier. I was angry with him the same way that I was very angry with the money collection. Am I angry with anything in Binibining? Absolutely not!… Actually yes: the Israeli regime. Okay the judges. So there you go, again there is some critical and sociological approach to it.
I.W.: To me it’s also in the early works, in how you use the camera. For example that the subjects are shot in a way that you see the camera is being held by a person. And instead of constructing an image which monumentalizes or reinscribes the monumental nature of that spectacle, it undermines the monumental. It’s an image which includes the dirty margins of the frame, in the way that a television news camera wouldn’t. It constructs an image which is anti-spectacular, and in a way is anti-patriarchal, because it shows the gaps and the mess and a certain sort of humanity around the thing that you are documenting. And that to me is also where there is this political charge. The irony of that is similar to the money scene in WEDDING or the judges in Binibining.
K.E.: How do you see it critically in Binibining for example?
I.W.: I see it certainly in relation to the judges and what happens in that section which seems to be extremely critical of the positions from which they’re speaking. And the way in which the gaze of the judges is captured; the way they look at these women and the way they look at each other. There’s also a certain kind of melancholy in it. A sadness and a sort of hopelessness involved in this thing which the people and the participants want to imagine is Miss World and yet we know is not Miss World, because it’s taking place in this concrete bus terminal, where everybody is talking and there is this weird Fashion TV projection in the background at the same time. The performances are completely incredible but totally ridiculous. It’s not promoting the event, the work is much more complex. Like the use of the camera and the way the spectacle unravels in I, Soldier and The Flag.
There’s also a political dimension to it. In WEDDING the money section is probably the most pointed one, but probably also in the extremity of the artifice when the women are being made-up, things like that. In Ashura it’s hard to say, because that work is in transition.
But like you say, it’s not that one thesis can be applied absolutely to all of these works. I think the work is shifting over time and your understanding of it is shifting over time, which is important. But I do think there is a criticality in the works themselves… They often engage in documenting things that they also work against.
K.E.: Well, sure, there is a critical approach. In Binibining for example it’s not towards the Filipino community, it’s towards the situation they were put in. The judges are Israelis; of course they choose who the judges are, but do they really have free choice?! They are only allowed to be there for four years, they have very limited rights, almost no rights; it’s very natural for them to choose Israeli judges, because they want to look good to them, they are under their control. This is what I’m criticising. This is a work in which I criticise Israel.
I think that decision of using the hand-held camera and really being stubborn about it still goes back to my theatre education. Even with Robert Wilson it was like that. That everything must be perfect: “Hold your breath and start.” It always starts like this. They want the audience to hold their breath. They want the audience to switch off their mobile phones, do this, do that. I hated it when I was being subjected to it as an actor because I had to produce that illusion as well. So maybe “illusion” is the right word here. There is a bigger illusion in theatre than in my videos. The aesthetic illusion is something that I always have a problem with. I have my own aesthetic, of course, but I am a very sarcastic guy. Even in my daily life, for example even if I love a person, I could just make fun of that person. And that’s also very intimate. To be able to make fun of people you should be intimate.
Let me tell you how I shoot. I have my own technique of making the camera look still. It’s a hand-held camera and many professionals are not very happy when the camera people tilt the camera, but I have found myself a technique of how to stand and I sometimes train my arm before a shoot. I try not to drink or go to parties or anything the night before. I’m really disciplined because my arm should be able to stay still for a long time. I am playing between the hand-held camera and the tripod. But when the tripod is used, I feel very dead because, as I said, I want to capture everything as it happens, not as I want it to happen. The tripod usually directs the action to happen in the frame. But in the case of my projects this is never possible. Subjects move fast in time and space. But even in TANKLOVE, something that is more constructed and less of a documentary, I made the decision, which was criticised by a lot of people, to use hand held cameras. For example there is this long perspectival shot of the tank coming down the main street. It was very static because it was directed, but I didn’t use a tripod. I think I felt this connection to holding the camera in this way first in acting school when I wasn’t included in a play they were staging because I was too young. They were rehearsing this Chekhov play and they gave me a camera to film it. And that was a turning point. I just liked what I saw in the camera, not what was on the stage.
I.W.: This is very interesting because it relates to something that you have written or spoken about before, that I’ve read in your blog. You talk about your experiences of training as an actor and finding nothing in the history of theatre between Euripides and Beckett that felt comfortable on your body. And what you’re describing now is that you have found a role for the camera (connected to you) that does feel comfortable. What’s also implicated in that? Somehow you holding the camera is also you occupying a role in this drama, yourself as a kind of equal actor-participant in what’s happening. This idea of acting is still quite key in your work, it hasn’t been erased, because the camera is still now connected to your body.
K.E.: No, definitely not, it hasn’t been erased, it is still there. I always say I hate theatre, but I also love it, because there are different forms of theatre; that’s what I meant when I said there’s nothing interesting between Euripides and Beckett. I meant it more about language, because they both knew how to speak for the theatre. And when I said body, it’s geographically related to me because ancient Greek theatre comes from where I come from. And you still see it there, in the villages, in their folklore. And then why Beckett? Because he knew how to speak, and it’s contemporary—we do have that Beckett language in daily life. Also our depressing world is really portrayed well in Beckett. Coming back to what you said about me using the camera, it’s true, at that time while shooting the play at school, I felt that I was in the theatre, but I was behind the camera. The camera was part of my body.
Through my interaction with the B’Tselem footage I realised something even further. Earlier, I had been so obsessed about my own control of the camera, I never thought that I would give the camera to somebody else. Even if I had had a second cameraperson, I would not have used a lot of that footage. When I saw the B’Tselem footage, I thought, sometimes it’s really not important how it’s shot or who shoots it. Slowly I started being more comfortable with raw footage and found footage. Also most of the footage from B’Tselem was shot the way I would have done it. When I joined the camera training of B’Tselem—they were trained to have their legs apart, the arm that holds the camera is supported by the opposite hand; exactly the way I do it. Just like what I was subjected to when I was shooting WEDDING for one month every night or Ashura with the Shiite community, they were also shooting what they saw, without much preparation or plan. So is there something general about how people shoot a scene they really want to record, do they do the same? I’m curious if there is, like, a generalised way of shooting this kind of film.
I.W.: I would connect this to more than just technical aspects. I think you are describing the camera almost as a means by which you’re simultaneously included and excluded from a situation. Perhaps this is something that’s shared equally with some of those people who shot this B’Tselem material: That the camera becomes the means by which they are simultaneously attracted and repelled from a situation that they’re in, a situation that is captured in order for it to be repelled or for it to be… for change to happen. And to me this also connects to what you’ve been describing in terms of your relationship to “the group” in general. That you are simultaneously attracted and repelled by the group, that you’re kind of invited in, but you’re also simultaneously excluded.
K.E.: You mean “repelled” in a negative sense?
I.W.: No, it’s not pejorative in that sense. I mean that the group often asks you to give something up about yourself in order to become a member of it.
K.E.: And you think by using the camera I resist this?
I.W.: Well, the situation that you are in becomes one of mediation that has simultaneously to do with attraction and repulsion, or an inclusion and an exclusion. For example, by holding a camera on stage and filming a production you are simultaneously acting in it, but also excluded from it, by the very means of you holding the camera. It’s participation and exclusion. It’s access and the mark of your separation also.
K.E.: That’s true. It’s the same in WEDDING. My experience from childhood is that we wouldn’t go to these “folk” weddings, that’s how we called them. Whenever I was asked to join the Halay—the dancing circle—I would escape. When I was shooting WEDDING, I was in the Halay, but would still hold the camera in my hand. I never said, “I’ll drop the camera now, I’m with you for the rest of the evening.” The same happened in Ashura. When they were beating their chests one night, they asked me if I wanted to join them. I said, “No, I’m shooting.” There it was more difficult, because it was a more closed group, and it was really different from what I had seen before. Halay, I had seen before.
I do want to join the group, and the next level would be to join. The next level for me would also be to question, in a very relaxed way, representing something or even documenting something. There are people who don’t like taking pictures on their holidays; I do, even if less and less. I wonder if I will come to a point when I end this documentation of groups, be it because I have less curiosity to travel and to see other things… And even if I go there, I won’t shoot anymore. I may mention it to you, but won’t have the urge to show it to you. I ask this question not so much for artistic reasons.
I.W.: You mean not make images of it?
I.W.: Why do you think there is such a hierarchy between telling me about an experience verbally and images of it? It’s still a representation, even if it’s spoken.
K.E.: But for me, images refer more to artistic representation.
I.W.: But an artwork could be a spoken work.
K.E.: True, but I’ve never done it. I’m used to photography and video, my mind still works in a way that makes me think these things should be edited and shown to people. Whereas telling a friend orally is an interaction of friendship. This will continue, but the other one might disappear or change. It’s actually changing already.
I.W.: Do you have this sense that the act of making the work is an act of affiliation and co-joining with the people who are subject to/of the work? Do they provide a kind of proxy identity for you, which is transitory, but one that you feel affiliated to?
I.W.: So what’s being spoken in the work is somehow both this personal voice but also the voice of the subjects. I’m thinking especially, say, how the intertitles, the text, in Binibining function; that the text poses something that seems on one level to have quite a caustic ironic edge, but it’s also directly the voice of the event, you are presenting directly material that was used to promote the event or circulated at the event itself.
K.E.: Definitely, I’m really interested in co-joining; it’s not even collaboration, it’s co-existing. I embrace the people, or I cling on to them in danger, they are like my lifejackets, my lifesavers. No wonder I clung onto the Filipino community when I was in Israel, which is such a problematic place. Why did I come up with this project rather than doing something else about Israel? And why in Turkey am I interested in the Shiite minority? Why do I want to join with these groups rather than with groups that I have a more parallel or intimate life with? All the groups of people that I am interested in in my works seem to be people that were described to me in my childhood as uncultivated, not modern, and primitive people. So this is all my personal identity crisis.
I.W.: You mean that your interests also describe how in part you understand yourself?
K.E.: I think so, because I still have some dissatisfaction with the cultures that I live in. I live in Berlin, which is not so different from Istanbul. Istanbul is also Western now. The more I travel to the Eastern Mediterranean the more groups and communities I see, less individualistic. I am obsessed about what happened in Tahrir Square, for example, and with what’s happening in Syria now, or in Palestine. The Israeli community is not interesting for me, even the Kibbutz wasn’t interesting for me, because that’s somewhat similar to what I grew up with. It’s still more Western, individual and ambitious. I look more at the other. I welcome the other.
So I think in general I want to detach myself from my own circle of life, my own surroundings, and look at other possibilities. Thanks to my projects I am able to travel and on each of these journeys I learn new things. I think I use art as a tool to make myself a better person.
What has also happened alongside this is that my representational range has expanded and I feel more comfortable with it. In Binibining, for example, I went back to the community after having documented the beauty pageant and conducted interviews with three different people. These and the magazines of the community will be on display in Winterthur.
I.W.: So there is more of a discursive context included?
K.E.: With the exhibition at Kunsthalle Winterthur I have my own space and I can experiment with my fears. Maybe it was my fear that didn’t let me make a more relaxed representation before now. If it had been three or four years ago, I wouldn’t have dared to present Ashura, because I would have been anxious about it not being finished. By showing Ashura unfinished, I am experimenting with the process. I’m showing it because now I think it’s enough to represent an experience.
I.W.: It connects to something that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot. Looking at the work, actually what you are describing now, this idea of a provisional situation, like the one in which something is told to somebody else, is actually the opposite of a theatrical situation. If we regard a theatrical situation as defined by the classic auditorium, what we know of people who have worked in this situation is that you aspire to guarantee that the same thing happens at the same time every single night. It’s not a provisional situation, it’s absolutely fixed, in the same way that everything is fixed in a video—you see the same images in the same order over the same time span. Usually there is not that much that is provisional in simply the presentation of a video work. But what you are describing now with Ashura and maybe some of the relations that start to occur between the projects in Winterthur, perhaps in terms of sound spills from one room to the other, actually what is established is a provisional situation where one’s personal experience on one day could be very, very different to the experience of a person who comes three days later, because of the random nature of these relationships. Whereas individual works like WEDDING are highly theatrical. Its editing structure is highly theatrical and choreographed. That’s one of its great strengths, its rhythm and choreography.
There’s another question that connects these ideas about theatre and film/video, and the individual and the group, which is to do with how you understand authorship. When you talk about TANKLOVE and working with this group of people as a project, you describe them very much as collaborators. I wonder what the repercussions are of that experience? How you sort of look back on the people who had been in the previous videos and the works that happened after. How does this relate to the idea of authorship?
K.E.: Hmm… I do see them as friends and collaborators. They are presenting themselves to me and actually they give me permission to do whatever I want with the work. Recently when they asked me for image credits for TANKLOVE I wrote, “Courtesy of the artist and the people of Jyderup”. It just came naturally, that’s how I see it. I want them to be present in the work. It’s the same idea in Binibining with the interviews and magazines, it’s very obviously stressing the fact that we are collaborators. The history of the magazines dates back to 2005, and through their covers the audience will be able to see what have been the topics within the community over the years. The choice of putting the photographs of Ashura Ensemble and TANKLOVE Ensemble centre stage in the show also came very naturally. Because it is about these people, and me with them. During the making of WEDDING, I didn’t have these ideas, but now I am trying to identify the people in the film and trying to find them to give them the film… Or are you interested in questions of ownership?
I.W.: No, I’m interested in the political implications of authorship. And whether the practical aspects of the work are in part a struggle against an idea of authorship, rather than something which is about authorship in an economic system or to do with ownership.
K.E.: I don’t spend so much time thinking about authorship. That’s maybe why many people ask me about it! During the B’Tselem lectures, people really started asking this a lot. I have permission to show the videos and I have travelled to most of the places the footage came from in order to meet the people who shot it. And in my talks I make it clear that this is my personal selection from the large archive of B’Tselem and all I want to do is to show the audience what the people who live under the Israeli occupation have shot. But there were a lot of questions about authorship and I very honestly said that I don’t feel uncomfortable showing this material here. Because I felt morally very comfortable about it. But especially people dealing with the arts, like professional artists, they really focused on this question. I found that interesting—they may find my answer difficult to accept, it might not be enough and they might expect more answers from me. But I just find it very normal.
Let me come back to authorship in relation to the Filipino community. I worked so hard on this film, one and a half years, and first I did the book. I was totally excited when it was out and I shipped lots of copies to James, the main character in Binibining. They were going to arrive the day of his birthday when I knew he was going to throw a party with the other girls from the pageant. I wrote a very emotional note to him, that I really hoped he would like it. Liking something or not depends a lot on the situation and the people. We question aesthetics and authorship, and so do they, but very differently. Two days later I called him and I asked him if he got my present. He just said, “Oh, thank you my friend, it was a nice gift.” Then he added, “but you know my friend, some of the girls were unhappy.” I thought they didn’t like the book, but they were just angry because they didn’t appear in the book! Because of page limitations, I wasn’t able to include portraits of each girl in the book. Later I sent them the DVD, but hardly any of them have watched it; they aren’t interested. They are more interested when their picture is on Facebook with their name tagged. When I showed Binibining in Poland, I was standing there in front of the installation, shooting, shooting, shooting stills so that I could have various pictures of each girl as they appeared in the film, and then put them on Facebook, tagged with their name. This was important for them, that’s how they approach my work. Very different from an art audience.
I.W.: Isn’t that something to do with a different use value for them? Their use value is not in the idea of the work existing as an art object, but in a mediating function.
K.E.: Yes, but still I like that energy. I wonder if that energy can be carried into our art world. I realised during the questions at showings of the B’Tselem material that the question of authorship was really occupying the audience, but not me. It’s interesting. I would like to discuss it; why are some people so interested in authorship and cannot recognise something that should be conceived in another way?
I.W.: I’m interested in, say, how an Abstract Expressionist painting indicates the role of the artist, the author, to be one of an individual genius, which we know by the way in which the canvas displays “unique” marks from the artist’s hand, that no other hand could have made, that are appreciated almost as if they were the marks of the hand of God. This signifies the idea of mastery or genius, versus something like a Warhol screen print where the mark of the hand is completely eradicated by a mechanical, repetitive process, and thereby an entirely different model of the artist is constructed. Not that we don’t consider Warhol a genius perhaps, Warhol as author is not erased from the point of sale, but it’s not in the same way as we do an Abstract Expressionist painter. What’s interesting to me are the different cultural, economic, political models that these two acts of making art imply. It’s a question about whether one believes in authority of the self as an individual genius or not.
K.E.: I don’t believe in this. Of course there is something that the artist does, he puts a certain amount of work in it, it must be credited etc., but I don’t consider myself as a part of this genius thing. I’m more generous in my concept of sharing with other people… The genius thing popped up briefly while shooting TANKLOVE. But the moment we all sat on the tank and took that picture it disappeared again. And since then I’ve been comfortable with it. It’s interesting that I’ve never been asked if I’m exploiting people but a lot about authorship. And maybe the reason I can answer them back in such a relaxed way is because I personally really don’t feel very interested in this.
I.W.: Would you describe the act of making the work as something related to the desire to escape?
K.E.: Escape from what? I don’t know… I am aware that I have a problem; no, it’s not a problem, but I have a desire to escape. Escape can come in many forms. It can be escape from situations, escape from being unable to maintain relationships, escape from being unable to start a new relationship. But I don’t really know where this desire to escape comes from. For example, I escaped from belief into something else. But maybe I’m too young to realise what’s really going on. The friendship and intimacy that I got from the Filipino community in Israel is equal to nothing else except to my best friends.
The real bonding that I had in the Shiite community every evening when I was there, and them treating me as the professor, the respect I got, was really overwhelming. One day after shooting, I was invited to a dinner party at a very rich friend’s house on the Bosphorus who deals in and collects art. The same evening I was supposed to meet my brother and I asked him to join me and go to this fancy party. We could first go to the Zeynebiye neighbourhood to meet with my Shiite friends, then he could also see what I was working on. I like my family to see what I’m doing. So we went there, sat down, everything was very nice and friendly, we were drinking tea and my brother was also very comfortable. No women. Then we decided to go to the party. On the way to the posh house my brother was silent. We walked in there, into a completely different life. I grabbed a glass of Champagne, and when I met my brother again at the buffet he said, “Are you crazy, how can you do this? How can you pass from that to this in such a short time?” He knew that I was used to it, doing these kinds of passages from one life style to another, for example, when regularly crossing the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, but he couldn’t understand how I could change so easily as he was feeling uncomfortable. I said, “This is what I’m living in, catering, buffet, this hedonistic lifestyle, this is what we grew up with. But the other one is something that I wish we could really be like.”
I.W.: But you still choose to make artwork about groups that you have this sense of affiliation to, rather than living in one of these groups. Which is an interesting differentiation to maintain.
K.E.: Exactly. Sometimes I think, what would happen if I fell in love with someone from this group? But many people have this kind of problem, they are from different groups and then they fall in love, but can’t be part of the new group exclusively. It’s like the small town guy who goes to the big city and enjoys life there, but he has to take care of a family and has to go back. So maybe I have to go back, because it’s a very difficult decision to live in that society. I am to a certain degree a believer, I’m very comfortable with anything that is directed to religion, and I like to learn more about it. But even being comfortable with it, I cannot really live with these groups yet, for example with a closed group like the Shiites, it’s not possible. You cannot just convert to the Shia, it’s like you can’t just become Jewish. And I can never become a Filipino of course! But I’m experimenting. I don’t know if it intensifies identity confusion for me, but even if it does, I’m okay with it. A long time ago I escaped from Istanbul and I’m still on the run. But it’s not only about Istanbul. If I had lived in New York, I would have done the same, I would have escaped from one person or one group situation until I was old enough to say that I wasn’t going to travel anymore but stay in my house or on my boat and go fishing. But I want to experiment because life is short and I want more colours in my life. And I think I use art as a tool for this.
I.W.: There is an interesting sort of paradox, or dynamic, that the communities you work with and that you document could represent something that could be read as a fantasy, as a kind of utopian idea about a community that isn’t actually connected to any kind of reality. But in the work, because we’re trained to read the ethnographic documentary frame that fits around it, especially now in contemporary art, we try to read the work as being about information. But actually what we are looking at in your work is something that is also much more closely related to ideas about fantasy, or indeed illusion. Which brings us back to the theatrical again…
K.E.: There is an illusion for me in the work, a personal one… I like the word “utopia”, because it describes the situation of the Filipinos in Israel; it’s crazy that I met people who live away from their parents, their children and husbands for many years. They only go maybe once every two years to see their family. Before Facebook and Skype it was impossible even to see each other. Utopia doesn’t necessarily mean happiness, but it’s something that I don’t have and I’m curious about it. It’s also very utopian for me to meet every night in the mosque and to socialise. It’s very utopian for me that in the first day that I walked into the neighbourhood in Zeynebiye all heads turned to me, but after spending one night in the mosque, the next day when I walked in to the neighbourhood nobody looked at me anymore, because I became one of them… It was very utopian that in that neighbourhood they could get out of their house at any time of the night, go down to the café and meet others for tea. Engin, one of my friends there, he said to me one day, “This is a great neighbourhood!” But I looked around and there was pollution, extremely loud noise from the planes flying over which take off from the nearby airport, no bank, not even an ATM, hardly any public transport. It seems like a place that everybody has forgotten about, for example I couldn’t live there! The houses are derelict, it’s a ghetto. But for him it’s the best neighbourhood in the world! You see this positivity in the Filipino community in Israel as well. In one of the interviews Mary Lou talks about how great Israel is! This is utopia for them. We don’t have this in our individualistic “social” life. For us it’s difficult to be so positive like this. I was really depressed for a while before I was shooting Ashura, but they, their community, really healed me.
I.W.: But there are presumably also things that can’t be spoken about in that situation.
K.E.: Like what?
I.W.: “My boyfriend’s got herpes”?
K.E.: I’m pretty sure it would be possible. It is possible, but it’s more based on trust and time, like how my mother accepted my homosexuality. If you have a close relationship to somebody, whatever you have, a good human being will accept you as you are.
I.W.: But it’s still a risk and it’s something you have to negotiate. It’s not inherent in the situation just because there is somebody to talk to, that you could talk to that person about anything. What I’m trying to suggest is that the kind of utopian ideal is a fantasy. It’s okay for a temporary period of time, but it’s actually also a situation that is exclusive and repressive at the same time.
K.E.: You could see it like that. But you don’t have to open your problems to everyone, you can’t expect help from everyone. There are some people you can talk about some things to and there are people you can’t. They might choose not to go into details, but they respect you as a person. For example, when I told my Filipino friends that I’m gay, the girls were screaming, “No!!!”, but then they immediately started looking for a boyfriend for me! And you know they are a very Catholic community… But sometimes there is no need to talk about it so quickly, there is no need to raise the topic. Or you can say it in a different way, with different words. I have no problem with that.
I.W.: Maybe another way round of talking about this is in terms of how rituals function. Or how you understand rituals to function. Who is being addressed by a ritual? What is the ritual upholding? What function does it serve? What social, political structures does it maintain?
K.E.: It almost serves everything, really. First of all it’s reflective; primarily it addresses the community that participates in the ritual. What I have seen is that they are making it for themselves.
I.W.: But I don’t know what “themselves” means. I don’t really believe in the essential idea of “self” that’s implied in that.
K.E.: Rituals maintain cultural codes. For the Filipinos, they need to have a dose of nostalgia, of remembering their home, and this is maintained by the beauty contests. Like for the Turkish immigrants at the wedding ceremony, the beauty contest is the number one ritual of the Filipino immigrants in Israel. It maintains their own community. A million miles away from home, they have a fear of degeneration, or change, or of being affected. So it is primarily resistance to assimilation. It also creates an occasion to get together and see each other, because they work in different parts of Israel. They cannot say, “Come, let’s meet” like the Shiites in their own neighbourhood, because they often work at places quite far away from each other. That is why they gather at the central bus station, because this is where the busses from all over Israel arrive. In the situation of the Shiites they also maintain the community. They are also immigrants. Most of the ones in Istanbul come from the region on the border with Azerbaijan. The bus companies in Zeynebiye only go to two destinations, and both of them are in that border region. For instance, there are no buses to Ankara.
The Shia movement is a political movement from very early times, and this ritual is informed by the fact that they believed they had been unjustly treated by the Sunnis when they took power after the death of Prophet Mohammed. They expected that Ali would take power, because he was related by blood to Mohammed. But he wasn’t made the caliphate. Then two incidents happened. First Ali’s first son Hasan was killed and then the younger son Hussein at The Battle of Karbala in 680. It was a big massacre at Karbala. The day of Ashura marks this day and every year, with this ritual they are remembering and repeating the pain related to the death of Hussein and his whole family, who were direct descendants of Prophet Muhammed. Which is very paradoxical of course, because Muslims are killing other Muslims. In its beginnings, Islam started as a universal religion but then it separated into these two groups: the Sunnis and the Shiites.
So, Shia is a resistance movement, a political movement, and all their rituals point to this resistance. They have to maintain their culture. I’m sure it’s different in Iran, because there there’s a Shia majority. In Iraq and Lebanon it’s a minority but with a strong presence such as Hezbollah. In Istanbul though, they are just a very few. So they maintain their own cultural codes through this ritual, like the Filipinos, and they remember their past. They have to “repeat” the bloodshed to do so, that’s why they dramatise it. This is how they survive. They do their rituals not only during the holy month of Muharrem that leads to the Ashura day, but every single evening, throughout the year. Similarly, I asked the Filipino community, what would happen if there weren’t beauty contests anymore, if somebody said, “You’re not allowed to do this anymore.” They said, “We cannot live without it!” I asked the Turkish people in Berlin, what if something happened and the German authorities imposed a restriction on Turkish weddings, they simply said, “We could not continue to live.”
I.W.: But what kind of “them” is it that survives? It would seem to me that rituals that are about survival are about reproduction, the need to reproduce in one way or the other, maybe a literal or cultural reproduction. The question for me is what is reproduced? Which aspects of these communities are sanctioned to be reproduced, which things aren’t?
K.E.: Sanctioned by whom?
I.W.: Sanctioned by the reproductive function of the ritual and the power structure that also supports it. Society needs to reproduce itself, but I think it’s selective in what’s reproduced.
K.E.: You mean, why do they do these and not other rituals? Why are they showing this aspect of their life?
I.W.: Why should for example the Filipino community want to perpetuate the beauty contest, which reproduces an idea of beauty that excludes a lot of other people and maintains a certain kind of social hierarchy? I would say that the ritual serves a political or ideological purpose in that sense. It maintains a balance of power.
K.E.: Yes, of course, but if you look at the beauty contest only from the perspective of a contest and superiority, it’s wrong, because rituals, unlike theatre and art, don’t work with the separation of artist or performer and audience. It’s participation all round. The person on the catwalk and the person who is watching it participate and enjoy it equally. There might be some people who might think this kind of beauty is imposed on us, but you know the film, they are not exceptionally beautiful. They are obviously different from the professional American beauty standards they are copying. It’s mutated in a very beautiful way for me, because everyone can join in. I heard that there are so many beauty contests in the Philippines: there are contests for married women, single women, ladyboys, children etc.—but it’s not so much about showing how beautiful they are in order to be elevated in society. I don’t think it’s like the ancient Greek beauty contest that started the Trojan War, it’s different, it’s much more generous. They provide a reason for a society to get together; it’s really simple. There isn’t so much a socio-philosophical explanation to it. They get together, they cook together, they collect money together, they raise money for the community through these pageants. It functions like the church that collects money, so it’s not just about the beauty. It’s the same with the Turkish weddings. It’s about groups of families getting together and supporting each other financially.
I.W.: But it’s always men who give the money.
K.E.: In traditional Turkish culture, the women are treated with a special courtesy that I personally cannot see in Western societies. They are elevated and treated respectfully, and they are served by men… So for example in the wedding hall the woman would pass the money to the man, and then he would get up and offer it on her behalf. So women’s place in the social hierarchy is actually very high… Besides they have their own social circles.
I.W.: I think it’s connected to ideas about who is perceived as having power and who is perceived as having no power.
K.E.: Who is perceived as having no power in your opinion?
I.W.: What the video WEDDING shows is that the women there have no voice. But I’m trying to talk more generally by suggesting that social formations attempt to maintain power relations, rather than undermine them.
K.E.: I don’t agree. In all the rituals I’ve seen, be it in Binibining, WEDDING or Ashura, I have never seen anybody who was pushed down. They all have equal possibilities and equal power in it.
I.W.: How do you understand equal?
K.E.: The fact that although the men are giving the money it doesn’t mean that they have more power.
I.W.: But it’s something you show in the video as being exclusively male. And it’s something in the video that you seem to be specifically critical of. What I’m trying to return to is this idea that within the ritual it’s not only an idealised, fantastical situation, but also about inclusion and exclusion and attraction and repulsion occurring at the same time. Which is also your relationship as an individual to the group as we’ve been discussing. Like two opposite directions happening at the same time in these situations.
K.E.: Opposite directions at the same time in the same situation. But I also changed in time. When I was shooting and editing WEDDING, I hated the male dominance in it at first, but now I’m telling you that I find it quite normal because it’s just the man’s job to do it. They are actually working harder, while the women are more comfortable sitting down, just watching and enjoying themselves, and actually being more in control. Now I also think the exchange and recycling of gifts is a very positive thing for the community, maintaining it financially and emotionally. Things that I found negative then I now find positive. At this moment in my life, I don’t see negative power struggles in any of these celebrations. I see only the positive sides in Binibining and WEDDING as well as Ashura.
I.W.: But I would say that you do, because of how the works occupy a critical position at the same time as one that’s based on inclusion. Don’t you think that in order to fully participate in a ritual you are being asked to give something up, some aspects of yourself or some part of how you’re living?
K.E.: Definitely. Some people say it’s brainwashing, others say it’s good. But it’s part of the game. You lose your individuality while participating in the ritual. You can continue your individuality later. These doses of what Emile Durkheim called “effervescent effect” are needed in all societies, we all do it, also with “modern” rituals. It’s definitely an aspect of all rituals that you must allow this to happen.
The idea of dancing in a circle is very interesting to me. You can really fall down if someone lets go of your hand, so you really have to trust the person. When it comes to collecting money, as a group you perform like a financial institution. In Binibining they participate by cheering for their favourite contestants, etc. So you become one and lose yourself. If you resist that, it becomes problematic.
I.W.: Of course, there is also perhaps a relief from choice that could be possible. I’m also very cynical about the idea of choice in relation to democracy, for example, as being something that we are meant to aspire to without question. I don’t really believe that “democracy” is at the top of the tree.
K.E.: Most systems of belief put aside questions of personal choice. And people are comfortable in not choosing certain things. If you understand it this way, you become very tolerant of a lot of things in life. But we live in a world where people are taught to choose and to stand by their choices. I think this is very stressful. We are subject to so many anti-religious statements and so many people who say you have to choose. Maybe in other societies in the world they don’t choose, like the Shiite groups in Ashura. There might be ways to live like this, we have to be open to that. And I, through my interactions, become more and more open about it. I feel so tolerant now compared to how I was six or seven years ago. The only thing I’m not tolerant of is this Republican, secular and arrogant part of Turkish society.
Berlin, July 2011