Interview with Köken Ergun, questions from Petra Heck sent by e-mail on May 5, 2009
PH – To start talking about your work, I want to focus on the most recent piece in this presentation: TANKLOVE. You made this video-performance during a residency at S.A.I.R in Denmark, and it shows a tank entering the provincial village of Jyderup. Could you elaborate on making this piece, and concentrate on how it differs from the other two pieces shown here, The Flag and Untitled, which, I believe, were both made in Turkey. How long did you stay in Denmark, for instance, and how did the process of making this go?
KE – I was commissioned by the U-TURN Quadrennial to make a new piece. I first had the idea of a tank penetrating a house through the window. It was a funny image, also erotic. Then it would interact with the people of the town in different ways. While these images were going around in my head, I was reminded of the military coups in Turkey, none of which I witnessed cause they ceased to happen after 1980, or took different shapes. But I do remember the Sincan incident of 1997.
At that time there was a religious party leading the right wing coalition, and the army (the so-called guarantor of the secular regime) was of course disturbed by this, as they often can’t stand the democratically elected parties – if they happen to be right wing. (The left in Turkey is totalitarian, republican, bourgeois, xenophobic and anti-European Union, etc.) Sincan is a small city very close to the capital, Ankara. Its mayor, then from the religious right, organized one of the common ‘Jerusalem night’ performances in the town.
Jerusalem night performances were initiated by Khomeini of Iran as an annual commemoration for resistance against Israel, with the aim of freeing Jerusalem from the Jewish state. These nights are composed of several performative acts, sometimes acted out by children. So when these images appeared on TV, you can imagine that the hair stood up on the back of the necks of the secular republicans… Anyway, so the Turkish army general ordered the army commander of that region to make a show of force. So one morning, unexpectedly, a large group of tanks appeared on the streets of Sincan, rumbling down the main street, shaking the earth. (‘Waking up to the sounds of tanks’ has been a common phrase among the generations who witnessed the coups of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.) A funny story is this: the second best-selling newspaper of Turkey, was ‘whispered to’ that something was going to happen in that town, so they sent two reporters there. They are able to catch the parade of tanks, and after taking pictures they quickly set off to Ankara, for the deadline of the evening paper. The best-selling newspaper heard about this, and got jealous. The boss of this newspaper calls the army general and asks him to repeat the parade in the afternoon so that his crew can also take pictures. So the tanks go back once more on the main street…Imagine the citizens of Sincan; like watching a tennis game. I always found the whole thing very performative; even more: theatrical.
Shortly after this tank performance, the army forced the government to resign. Since then this episode has been referred as the ‘post-modern coup’.
So my ideas slowly moved from a fictional film to a more performative act. I decided to get a tank and run it down the streets of a small Danish town without advance warning. It was my aim to recreate what happened in Turkey back in 1997. The reason I chose Denmark was to ask the question, ‘What if it happens to them one day?’ This is the welfare state that is so proud of its democracy. Military or other totalitarian fractions are hardly visible, and powerless. I wanted to ask if one day this could change. And further than this, to pose the simple question, ‘What do you do when you see a tank?’
Over a period of two months I developed the piece with the help of the Jyderup public and many Danish institutions, including the Danish army. Since I stayed in the town and lived with the locals, in that time we developed a close friendship. The Danish army was very helpful too, but they simply didn’t have enough tanks in the country to give one to us. So we rented the tank from a private collector. The whole process was demanding, especially the fact that the tank would damage the asphalt. But the regional council had no problem with that, because the whole project had the full support of the Jyderup community in the first place. So it is not my work actually, it’s theirs. They collaborated with me to bring this tank to their town. This project probably could not have happened in any other country.
PH – You told me this is not simply a finished piece. Can you say more about that? There is a blog you made for this piece, but you do that for other pieces too. What is the difference with this one? And also, why do you use the format of blogs at all for your work. Is it to create more dialogue and discussion around your work?
KE – i think it is more like something which cannot be made into a piece, into an artwork. You see, the TANKLOVE project changed over time. Something that started as fiction was welded to reality during the process. This was therefore a turning point in my practice. With this project I simply realized that fiction is not my thing. For me the highlight of the project was how the town’s people interacted with the tank in their own streets. It is a small town, people own the streets, not like the other way around, as it is in big cities. So many things happened that you don’t see in this film. The tank was there for the whole day. There were several fictional scenes we shot but never used in the end. While these scenes were being shot there were other TV crews, journalists who came to document this unusual event; and the town’s people, especially the children, had lots of fun with the tank. They were able to climb on top of it, pose for the cameras in front of it. It was like a circus that came to town. Then in the afternoon, when we drove the tank down the main street, in front of the railway station and all the markets and shops, it caught many people by surprise. They didn’t understand why a tank was driving up their main street. With the help of the Danish army’s volunteer groups, the Home Guard, we were able to keep traffic running on the main street, so the cars were passing next to the tank. And then we decided to give the town a show that they will always remember. We played with the tank’s smoke machine, creating a spectacle of smoke and also loud engine noise for about 20 minutes. The trains were arriving and departing at the station. Passengers getting off the train, on their way home, witnessed a giant machine blowing out smoke toward the façade of the municipal building. Like a dragon… In the end, the locals started calling me Santa Claus, and they wanted me to come every year. It was a remarkable experience for me.
So, no film can really represent this energy, this experience. That is why I want to make a book of this project, with interviews with the locals, the people who helped us, like the home guard, or the town council, how they all saw this action, and with several photos we took during the making of the film. It created a lot of discussion in Denmark as well. So I want to revisit these discussions. But I haven’t been able to find the necessary funds to make this book yet. So I started a blog for the project. It is acting like a model for the book.
This blog was the inspiration for other blogs about my other works. I always felt uneasy about leaving a work to itself after completing it. Exhibitions were not enough. Not all the things you want to say end up in the film – the final product. So these blogs helped me to confirm my need to reflect on my projects. I don’t only have blogs for finished works, but also for doing my research about new projects. Like this ‘instructions and rules’ blog: it’s about a new project I have in mind about acting, my roots. And then I will open a blog about the effects of Turkish TV soaps on the Palestinian society. If you do this, in the end, the premiere or launch of the work, as it is in openings of exhibitions, becomes unimportant, both for yourself and for the audience. I think it also helps to take away some of the ‘opening night’ stress on the artist. I come from a theater background, and one of the reasons I left theater was because I hated that stress of the performance night. I think I am doing what I am doing now because of all these fears I had in the past. Therefore, I don’t like to give myself similar “performance stress” like deadlines, commissions and openings. I can even say that making fiction is stressful, because in order to make fiction you need to rule over nature, to pause it, or to change it. This is my background actually, I mean theater. But now I am looking to represent nature as it is, not trying to reconstruct it for my comfort, or the audience’s.
In general I think the end product should not be so important, and the presentation should not be the only channel for showing your work, your worries, your happiness or whatever you are putting out there. For example, there is this thing which is very common in Berlin: they call it finissage. They celebrate the end of their exhibition. I never understood it. How can artists celebrate the end of their exhibitions? Are they happy that it has ended? Or are they feeling relieved that a responsibility is off of their shoulders? I don’t think an exhibition should ever end. I want to carry it with me all the time. This is why I am very slow in producing new works. It’s like how you cannot get over an ex-lover. Why should you? We have a small video collective, with seven other video artists called AFAVA. Some of our members think the same about producing slow and little. I am very lucky to be able to share this with them. After all, there is a system out there which demands you to produce more and more.
PH – You are living and working in Berlin now. How long have you been there, and did going there change your way of working, your perception and the subject of your work? Did it affect you a lot moving to Berlin – or actually, moving out of Turkey – since you lived in London and New York before too, and Berlin is not your first move out of Turkey?
KE – I’ve been based in Berlin since 2007. Immediately after arriving to Germany – it was for a residency at the Künstlerhaus Worpswede – I decided to take the German-Turkish community as my next subject. I entered the community and lived with them for some time, before deciding which part of their life/culture to focus on, and I made the 3-channel video work, WEDDING, over the period of two years. So I think the projects I do abroad are somehow linked to home. As I pointed out above, TANKLOVE is also about Turkey. I guess you can carry your way of working, your perception, from one place to another. I am planning to develop my new pieces in the Middle East, namely Palestine, Lebanon and Israel.
PH – About your split-screen installation “The Flag”. I want to ask you why you chose the split screen, and whether you can then also say a word about your working methods in this particular work? For instance, did you ask for permission to shoot at the April 23 Children’s Day Celebrations, which mark the establishment of the new Turkish Parliament, and hence the official demise of the Ottoman Empire back in 1920?
KE – I frequently get asked that. I have been wondering why that is. I think the audience is under the impression – I must somehow be conveying that – that this ceremony is closed – a ‘closed crowd’, if we would use Elias Canetti’s terms – but it is not. It is a public event. So it is definitely possible to record it. I might have gone a bit nearer to the subjects than anyone else would do, that is true. But I could see that the subjects I shot were happy about it. They want more and more people to see their performance.
You see, what is happening there is a ritual, and rituals construct the cultural codes we live with. It is not the cultural codes that create the rituals. In other words, rituals create myths, not the other way around. And rituals are obligatory. Myths, like religion are at the discretion of its worshipers. Therefore the state supports rituals of this kind and makes them obligatory for its citizens, by way of making these days holidays, like the Queen’s Day you have in the Netherlands, or the Turkish Childrens Day we see here. On these holidays there are demonstrations, parades, performances, stuff that ‘reminds’ you of your state and your citizenship. In Emile Durkheim’s terms, this is ‘ritual time’, where the effervescence of the ritual allows the individual to feel and move as part of a community. However, as soon the celebrations are over, or the national day has ended, the citizen regains his or her individual status, gets out of the community spirit. This is why the state repeats these rituals every year, because it wants to prolong this feeling of unity, so that you always remain a good citizen, part of the community, which must feel together, move together…. To remind us, and to get us back to the community mode at every ritual time. It is this community mode that can create the strongest energy: the energy of the masses. It is capable of creating the biggest wars. And it did. Think of the crusaders, or how the Third Reich managed the masses. However, there are always ways to escape this power too, or not to be part of it. For example, what happened on your Queen’s Day this year was remarkable. An individual refused to give in to the effervescent power of the ritual, and the state. He reacted against it, by crashing his car into the crowd which was the community he didn’t participate in, and was opposing.
As for the use of two screens: I have been very influenced by the work of Eija Liisa Ahtila. I think she is one of the reasons that I started making videos. While working in theater, with Robert Wilson, I saw the world more as three dimensional, live. But then I saw a work by Ahtila, ‘The House’, and I was so impressed by it. Then I became interested in the two dimensional world of film. But if you allow the audience to look at one subject from two or three different points of view at the same time, you can get closer to the three dimensional. Maybe this is why I like using multi-screens. For example, my last work, WEDDING, is three screens. But even better, the cubists did this on a single canvas. But best of all: life is three-dimensional, without making any extra effort, with no artificial push. This becomes the main question once again: how to represent life so it looks like life? Or do you construct a completely new life?
PH – I read somewhere you see “The Flag” as an act of exorcism of your fear about the rising nationalism in the world, but especially in Europe. Would you comment on this rising nationalism you see in relation to “The Flag” and you relation to rituals? I also read in an interview something about the strategy of “national education”. Can you tell me more about this strategy and its relation to your work?
KE – Yes, I think nationalism is the biggest headache for mankind now. It has been created in Europe. One cannot help thinking that only 100 years ago there was nothing like nationalism, because it was still the time of multi-cultural states or empires. Then it grew like a bacteria and from Europe it contaminated the entire world. For example, I am watching the semi-finals of the Eurovision Song Contest as I am answering your questions. And it is so ridiculous how they are pushing ‘nations’ and nationalism with lame contests like this. It is extremely ironic that it is taking place in Russia this year, one of the older and stronger states of the east, which did not have as much nationalism as in the west of Europe – and mind you, it had communism for a while. At this moment we are all witnessing how they are hosting one of the most exagerrated Eurovision showcases. This thing is not about co-existence, it only fuels more and more nationalism. It makes me very angry, in the same way I am angry to the growing nationalism in my home country.
The young Turkish Republic is a rather diminished nation state built on the ruins of a big multi-cultural, non-colonial empire. The Ottoman style of co-existence (different from that of the short-lived Hapsburg empire) was swiftly replaced with Turkish nationalism and excluded all other cultures that used to live in this remaining part of the Ottoman Empire. Although the new republic was secular in formation, the non-Muslim cultures were the quickest to be kicked out of the new system. Muslim cultures, like the Kurds, remained within the new republic, and were not pushed out as fast as the Greeks or the Armenians, who by then had their own nation states. But this does not mean that the remarkably large Kurdish minority (so large that it is maybe not right to call it a minority) flourished and was made an integral part of the new nation state. They lived – and remain – under various torments. What you see in “The Flag” is the source of this torment. The oath that the kids are taking is something we grew up with, and it is still repeated every Monday morning and Friday afternoon at every single school in Turkey. This is again a ritual, a ritual of the state. As I said above, rituals have the power to create myths. So it is these rituals that create the feeling of citizenship, and subsequently the nation state. Especially in young minds. I strongly agree with Eric Hobsbawm’s theory about the two most important things in creating the nation state: national education and military service. “The Flag” is about national education, while its sister work, “I, Soldier” (which is often screened together with “The Flag”) is about military service. With these two works I try to demonstrate the process of nation building. Both national education and military service is obligatory in most nation states. The state makes it unlawful not to send your kids to primary school, as the same state will get you if you refuse to go to the military. Both in national education and in military service, repetitions and recitations are key practices. Students, like soldiers, are taught with verses, songs often supported with music and even dance. During this process a community is being built, because it is ritual time again. We can call this kind of community building “muscular bonding”, since it is attuned to the rhythm of the body, by way of verse or music, or choreography. Like many other millions of kids of the Turkish Republic I underwent this attempt to mold me through these state rituals, and it is no wonder that when I started to express myself with video, one of the first things I did was to go to the stadium when they were celebrating one of these national days. I had to get this out of my system. It is really a kind of exorcism. I had to share it with others who have been subject to this kind of national education.
There is a very famous anecdote that Hobsbawm uses in one of the volumes of his big work about European history: as you know, the state of Italy is quite a new state, like Germany. At the first sitting of the first ever Italian parliament, one of the founders of the nation state whose name I don’t recall now, addresses the enthusiastic crowd of MP’s: ‘Ladies and gentlemen! We have created Italy! Now we have to create Italians!’
This is the spirit of nationalism!
PH – In this work you shot an official celebration ceremony, whereas in TANKLOVE and Untitled you created the action itself as a performance. Can you elaborate on these different formats? Do these different approaches function on the same level within your artistic practice?
KE – I have a love/hate relationship with theater. Although I tried very hard to be accepted in the acting school, after being accepted it didn’t take me long to realize that I had made this choice not because I liked theater or wanted to be an actor, but that I liked some kind of performitivity that I couldn’t yet describe. So when I moved away from theater and got involved in filmmaking, or let’s say contemporary art, it was no coincidence that I found myself making things centered around performances of some sort. I have this theory about ‘live performance’ versus ‘ life performance’ that I often repeat: that live performance is the aestheticized performance of all art forms, such as theater, cinema and performance art, even exhibitions. ‘Life performance’ refers to acts we do in order to maintain our cultural lives, whether this is eating, dancing, sex, discipline. Above we named them rituals. ‘Life performance’ is another way of saying that. Some call it ‘cultural performance’. It is performances like these that I find more true. And if art is about truth, then it is necessary to examine performances like these, rather then the artistically beautified performances. So part of my work is to capture on video these kind of ‘cultural performances’, like in ‘The Flag’, ‘I, Soldier’, or most recently WEDDING.
Practices of the other kind are also performative, like in ‘Untitled’, which is a repetitive performance in reaction to a political problem/abuse, or TANKLOVE, which is a restaging of an historical act in reaction to another political abuse. It is hard to say that these fall more into the category of art and the others aren’t, because as soon as you edit the footage of rituals and re-present it, it becomes an artistic expression. I do not worry about that now; I think both of them point in the same direction. With works like Untitled, and TANKLOVE I might be trying to find a different kind of director’s theater, while with the other ritualistic works I focus on the director-free theater. Or one which is directed not by an individual but by a community spirit. I think both practices serve the same purpose for me: I am looking for different kinds of ‘mimesis’. In this sense, they do function on the same level. They are etudes; different approaches to the same concern.
PH – The third and last work in the presentation is called ‘Untitled’, wherein you perform yourself, wearing different types of scarves, until you start crying. Does this use of your own body make it a personal protest or statement, or should we not take your personal act that privately? Was it just easier to perform yourself instead of hiring somebody to do the job of ‘acting’?
KE – This was my first video piece. And also the first one in which I am exorcising something. It is my anger toward the president of Turkey at the time, and all the secular elite in general. He was appointed by the publicly elected parliament, but not voted for by the public. He came from a law background, and his assignment was deeply and gladly supported by the army. Shortly after taking the presidency, the general elections resulted in a sweeping victory by the current ruling AKP party of Tayyip Erdogan. They come from a more religious-slash-conservative background. So naturally most of their wives wear headscarves. And in Turkey, like in France, women who wear headscarves are not allowed to enter certain institutions, or spaces that are governed by the state. For example in Turkey, they are not admitted to universities, cannot be civil servants. This is a basic violation of human rights in my point of view, but because a headscarf is unfortunately seen and also used as a religious symbol, the secular- minded population in Turkey sees it as a threat to Atatürk’s secular republic. Atatürk died in 1938. Anyway, yet another national day, the biggest one, Republic Day, was around the corner. And traditionally the president holds a Republican Day ball in the presidential palace, which again was first occupied by Atatürk, and is the king of all state buildings/state controlled spaces. Until then  no woman with a headscarf had ever entered that building. None. So this bright president has a brilliant plan: he sends out one-person invitations to all the members of parliament so that their wives will not be able to come. I hate him forever for that. And I had to do something about it. This is why I decided to perform the piece myself. It was my anger, and I had to perform my own exorcism.
PH – The last work you made is called WEDDING, and you made this in Berlin, although that is not something you would clearly notice within the piece. Can you tell a little about this work, about the content, the process and the form?
KE – WEDDING is a very special work for me. It was made over a period of two years. And I now believe that it was not made to be an art piece. It is the piece where I got closest to ‘life theater’. I lived inside the Turkish-German community for a long while, and focused on their wedding rituals. All those ideas about rituals I have tried to explain above are the result of this very project. I was able to define my previous works, ‘I, Soldier’ and ‘The Flag’, only after making WEDDING. So it is a queen work, like a queen bee. Unchronologically, it gave birth to all the other works.
But let us suffice to say that it is a three-channel video which is composed of several different wedding ceremonies in the Turkish-German community in Berlin, and leave it at that, since it is not part of our exhibition here.
PH – What are you working on at the moment or what are your future plans? Will you continue making both constructed performances as well as shooting existing performances?
KE – My new projects are going to be more in the Middle East. There is one book project about the separation wall in Palestine. A large scale project about the social effects of Turkish TV soaps on the Palestinian society. And a musical documentary about domestic workers in Beirut. Apart from that, I am still going on shooting existing performances. One of them is my interest in gay parades. I have archived quite a few, and the Tel Aviv gay parade is coming up pretty soon…