Unexpected Scenes From a Human Rights Video Archive*
Köken Ergun interviewed by Özge Ersoy
Köken Ergun is a Turkish artist currently based in Berlin. He takes public ceremonies as the impetus for his artistic production, addressing the aesthetics and politics of contemporary rituals. His recent project consists of a video selection from the archives of B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, based in Jerusalem. Since 2007, B’Tselem has given cameras to Palestinian families in high-conflict zones, and trained them to shoot daily cases of human rights violations committed by Israeli soldiers and settlers. In turn, B’Tselem collects the footage and uses it for advocacy campaigns in Israeli and international media, and also as evidence in court cases. As a result of his research in the B’Tselem archives, Ergun selected videos that don’t document violent conflicts or attacks, but rather capture personal and unexpected moments. Ergun presents this project in the form of public talks and posts their transcripts on http://btselemarchiveproject.blogspot.com.
ÖE. The concept of ritual and cultural performance are recurring themes in your video works. In I, Soldier (2005) and The Flag (2006), you document public ceremonies that celebrate annual national rituals in Turkey, while Wedding (2006-8) captures nuptials of Turkish immigrants in Germany. In these works, you shoot the footage and then edit it according to certain aesthetic concerns. In other words, you choreograph images for the final work. Your recent B’Tselem project also inquires into the social and the collective, yet this time you are not the one holding the camera. All of the videos in this project are taken by Palestinians living in the West Bank. You don’t edit this footage; you simply collect it. Could you talk about this transition?
KE. As I spend more time in Palestine and Israel, I start to perceive the local cultures, conflicts, and peoples in different ways. It’s very difficult for me to describe experiences to those who haven’t been in this region, or have been here only for short visits. The West Bank is in a perpetual state of exception and related experiences are not easy to represent. One can assume that this is mainly because of the occupation, yet I sometimes think that things would have remained complicated even if the occupation ended. There is a certain energy—partly divine, partly human—that makes everything appear differently from other parts of the world I’ve been to so far. For this project, I borrow footage that is shot by people who live in the most complicated and high-conflict areas of the West Bank. They are surrounded not only by settlers and soldiers, but also by that divine, unearthly energy. They understand and appreciate this state of living better than I do. Also, they can capture it much better than I possibly would. So I wanted to find a way to represent the situation from their point of view. I find it more honest. That is why I chose to be a collector, not a producer of images. This decision was rather intuitive.
ÖE. Could you talk about how you worked on your previous videos? Has your experience with the B’Tselem footage changed your way of dealing with this medium?
KE. Prior to this project, I had a different way of working. For a long time, I followed certain social groups who practiced a ritual I was somehow informed about and interested in. After spending a generous amount of time to be with them and to get to know their culture better, I shot the ritual with my camera, almost like an embedded journalist. Then I took a break from both the ritual and the footage. I almost never looked back at what I recorded right after the shooting. I guess I was fond of remembering my experiences of these rituals, recalling my own memories, and playing them over and over in my head. I was also afraid that what my camera captured would be less ‘good’ than what my memory recorded. I was always in between these two. Somehow, in the early stages of my video work, I had already started to be skeptical about what the camera could possibly show.
I waited a long time before going back to my footage. Also, I worked on it when I was in a different geography. I selected parts that I find closest to my own recollections. Then the elaborate editing process started. I edited I, Soldier in two months, The Flag in three months, and Wedding in one year. I still spend a lot of time on the editing table, trying to put together pieces that weren’t shot in an organized way. Unlike filmmakers, I have never had plans about what and how to shoot. Instead, I haven chosen to actively participate in rituals. To use Durkheim’s terms, I’m pulled into their ‘effervescence effect.’ When this happens, you don’t feel very much in control of your own movements, let alone decisions to shoot this or that. Your camera shoots what your eyes look at, and where the collective body of the community takes you, because you cannot move on your own. If you do so, you don’t participate in the ritual; you are a detached observer. I think most documentary films are made by such detached observers. This is something I’ve always wanted to avoid.
ÖE. Could you say more about detached observers?
KE. For example, one day a German film crew came to one of the weddings I was shooting. They were one director, two cameramen, and a boom operator. They had massive cameras with very bright headlights, which had an aggressive directional light that pointed in the direction the cameraman was looking; it was cutting through the dim wedding hall. At some point, this very uptight team found itself in the middle of the visitors who were dancing feverishly. I could see that none of the crewmembers felt comfortable about being touched by these people. They were alien to their movements and emotions. More importantly, it seemed that they didn’t want to be attached to them at all. Perhaps it was fear. Meanwhile, I was dancing in a halay circle (a folkloric dance), one hand holding my small camera and the other holding the girl dancing next to me. When I passed next to the crew, I gave them a big smile. You should have seen their faces when they realized I was doing the same thing as them, but in a very different way.
ÖE. Since you participate in the ritual and go with the flow, you don’t follow a narrative order while shooting. Yet you seem to add that quality through editing.
KE. Yes, that is the biggest challenge for me. Living the moment with them and then trying to represent this to others. They are two different conditions. I value and enjoy the lived experience much more than the representation of it. But in the end, I feel obliged to make a film out of it. That is to say, I’m trying to represent something in a way that I don’t want it to be represented. Isn’t this a conflict, a dichotomy? Yes, certainly. I think I’m still limiting myself with the boundaries of how an autonomous artwork should be. What I’m going through, I call it ‘forced narrative flow’.
Let’s take the example of Wedding. It took me one year to link the moments I was looking for, and in the end the piece had its intro, crescendo, and final. It was—as you said—choreographed. However I always had a doubt: I felt I had too much control over the image. There was too much make-up, so to speak. When I was working in the B’Tselem archives, I realized how autonomous and powerful raw and unedited material could actually be. Previously, I was almost addicted to editing. I believed the representation could be complete only through editing. With the B’Tselem footage, I stepped out of my comfort zone. I chose not to shoot and not to edit. What was left? To collect and distribute.
ÖE. What has changed after this work? Let’s think about your ongoing project Binibining Promised Land. It explores the annual beauty pageants organized by Filipino guestworkers in Tel Aviv, and perhaps more importantly, you’re holding your own camera once again. Can you tell us about your interest in this subject and also the way you’re using your camera in this project?
KE. This project started after I was exposed to the B’Tselem footage. This time I had a team and we used two cameras: one on tripod, capturing stage actions the whole time, and I had my own camera mobile. In my previous works, although I used handheld cameras I paid special attention not to shake it and to operate it smoothly. For Binibining, I wanted both cameras to move freely. I even told the cameraman with tripod to turn his camera immediately and even roughly to wherever something interesting would happen. The beauty pageant and the crazy nightclub where the contest took place were very chaotic! And so was the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station where the club was located. We acted with that energy. This type of aesthetics—or shall we say non-aesthetics—of the camera movements is also influenced by what I saw in the B’Tselem archives. Similar to the B’Tselem footage, what is important in this project is not how the image looks, but rather what we are looking at. In other words, the style or the look of the work is less important than the fact that such an interesting and diverse event is taking place in such an unexpected location.
Binibining is almost an ethnographic project for me. After the beauty pageant I became very close friends with many women from the Filipino community in Tel Aviv. I started hanging out with them, going to church on Saturday evenings, and then to their makeshift flats to eat. We also went to the nightclubs at the bus station and danced until morning. I conducted video interviews with them at their favorite locations in the city. In all of these, I focused on their ‘raw’ life. Also, when I edited the footage, I put less of my own commentary in the work. It is my longest video work up to date: 38 minutes of a beauty pageant. It’s simply a condensed version of what happened that night in the Bahay Kubu nightclub. However, sometimes I think even this work is too choreographed. I wonder how I could possibly show the raw, unedited footage of each camera on two different screens. The duration of each film would be around 6 hours.
ÖE. It’s striking to me that human interactions, the collective, and the social are central to all the works we have discussed so far, except the B’Tselem project. In these videos there seems to be a focus on the personal as well. Videos depict sunsets, empty rooftops, or television screens, which imply the personal to me. How do you see the interplay between the collective and the personal in this work?
KE. When filmmakers go to the B’Tselem office, they usually ask for specific images. They type up keywords, such as ‘market,’ ‘Hebron,’ ‘2009,’ ‘soldiers,’ and walk out with images that are tagged as such. In my opinion, this is very professional, impersonal, and care-free. This way of looking at these videos seems to be completely detached from the real life and worries of the region. It’s almost like shopping. In contrast, I was interested in every single videotape, as each of them had a unique personal value. Most of the tapes were watched only once by the B’Tselem officer who uploaded videos on the server. If the videos don’t have evidentiary value, in other words if they aren’t ‘useful’ for the organization, nobody would go back and watch them. Therefore I imagined them as secret vaults that had valuable information. Someone had to make them visible. That’s why I didn’t want to use any keywords and wanted to watch everything in the archive.
The more videos I watched, the more I got into people’s daily life defined by the occupation. It’s crucial to say that the daily life in these videos is not very private, for the lack of a better word. It’s rather socially experienced. In my experience in Palestine, I haven’t found a clear, strong distinction between the personal and the collective. I think that the collective is dominant throughout the Middle East. The space of the individual is less, compared to Europe for instance. Here individual expressions matter less than collective expressions, whereas in Israel you can see the opposite. For instance, I would argue that the mandatory military service in Israel is implemented not only to teach how to fight, but also to teach how to be a collective entity. The state wants individuals to be part of their collective. In contrast, in Palestine, there are tendencies to be more individual, because the collective is the norm.
Similarly, in the B’Tselem videos, we don’t see Palestinians’ private lives directly, such as what’s happening in the house. Here I want to emphasize that B’Tselem bypasses the detached observer as it gives cameras to people who live in this complicated environment, not to professionals coming from outside. Yet, personal stories are still very rare. It’s not only because these people are told to shoot human rights violations. There are tapes that have nothing to do with the primary goal of this camera distribution project, but they still don’t capture personal stories. In this context, I selected different videos. For instance, a camera focuses on a sunset for a long time, another captures Fashion TV for 60 minutes, on a tripod.
I also want to mention the inevitable interplay between inside and outside. What is seen even in the most personal video can’t be divorced from what’s happening outside. The cameras are inside, but their subject—settlers and soldiers—are outside. They can close the streets as they wish and open them as they wish. One day you can go out, the other day you cannot and if you go out there is always a risk of being attacked by settlers. This is why I sometimes refer to this project as Beyt, which means ‘home’ both in Hebrew and Arabic. People inside their homes are trying to capture and understand those who are outside. In this sense, it’s almost an ethnographic survey on a mass scale. In the end, this project does deal with the social but in an indirect way.
ÖE. It’s tempting to think about B’Tselem camera distribution project in the context of the expansion of video activism organizations. They have proliferated since the early 1990s, as video cameras have become smaller, more available and affordable. These organizations—such as Witness and Appalshop in the US, Chiapas Media Project in Mexico, CEFREC in Bolivia, The Drishti Media Collective in India, and INSIST in Indonesia, among many others—all share the legacy of social documentaries of the 1930s, cinema verité works of the 1960s, and also alternative media movements of the 1970s and 1980s. They aim to collect, translate, and display injustice, and somehow reveal ‘the truth.’ B’Tselem camera distribution project has a similar goal as well, yet in your selection, the image seems to be free from the demands of a documentary tradition. It doesn’t perform an evidentiary role.
KE. That’s true. Unlike the videos I selected, cameras that capture human rights violations often turn into weapons. In Palestine, they turn into evidence-making devices, which in turn help Palestinians to demand justice. Such tapes are very valuable and must be kept safe from soldiers and settlers who can be legally accused. It’s like being in war. The person who records a grave violation carries a lot of responsibility. This is not a mechanical responsibility like in journalism, but an emotional one. These tapes can have personal and also social impacts; they can have an influence on the larger community.
However, for my project I’ve been interested in videos that are more on the personal side, which aren’t very valuable as evidence. Yet I find them more valuable in understanding the psychology of the daily life in the West Bank. This is why I abstracted this type of videos from the vast archive. This footage invites the viewer to decipher an almost secret language. I was tempted to watch these videos over and over again, knowing that an immediate meaning was impossible. Yet I also knew that it’d remain at an abstract level I wouldn’t be able to understand completely. In my view, this is how these images gain certain autonomy.
ÖE. To follow up on that, I’d say that your video selection doesn’t reinforce generic categories of victim, perpetrator, and bystander, all of which are predominant in the visual culture about Palestine. It’s fair to say that B’Tselem, as a human rights organization, follows or assumes a causal chain: information turns into knowledge, knowledge into acknowledgment, and finally acknowledgment into action. However the videos you selected are somehow unexpected. They don’t propose a claim of truth and this is why they aren’t very ‘valuable’ for B’Tselem, as you said. Does your selection make a subtle criticism of how Palestinians are represented in the mainstream media and mostly in the visual arts?
KE. Yes, in a way it’s a reaction that I have. For instance, for my project titled TANKLOVE (2008), I hired a military tank to drive down the main street of a Danish town. The video portrays the town dwellers’ reactions, first baffled then laughing and cheering for it. Here, I wanted to ask what would happen if the welfare nations of Western European and Scandinavian nations would wake up into a military rule one day. The unexpected can become true. However the image of a tank is often associated with so-called undemocratic and weak countries, such as Turkey, which is a static image reinforced by the media. There’s a similar issue for Palestine. Media keeps circulating images of elderly, head-scarved women crying over coffins, surrounded by bearded young men chanting in an angry way. This is used to represent all of Palestine. I think some people are happy to keep this non-changing image and portray Palestinians as victims all the time. We should also question why most Western governments would prefer to have Palestinians as ‘victims.’ I have strong reactions towards this. Yet one could ask: aren’t Palestinians victims of a terrible occupation? Yes, they are. But this is different from being labeled as victim as a static category. In the B’Tselem footage, Palestinians try to prove they’re victims of abuse so that they can seek justice and change the situation they are in right now. Yet, what interests me is the mundane, almost futile images that can tell other stories.
ÖE. I’m also curious as to what you think about the ownership of these videos. For you, who owns these videos and how do you feel about making a selection from the archive of a human rights organization and present it in an art context? Are they to be left anonymous, and what does that mean to you?
KE. Ownership belongs to people who shoot the videos. During my research in the archives, I visited Hebron, one of the high-conflict cities where the footage I selected happened to come from. There, I met Mich’ael Zupraner who is a video artist and also the founder of HEB2, a documentary project in the form of a community television channel based in Hebron. With Mich’ael’s help, we asked the people, who shot the footage I borrowed from the B’Tselem archive in Jerusalem, for their permission to show these outside of the B’Tselem context. In Suspended Spaces exhibition, selected footage was installed on monitors. Here we credited all the owners at the end of each clip. This is a complicated issue. My priority is to expose the footage to as many people as possible rather than turning it into merely an art project. This is also the reason why I try not to name the project and simply present it as my selections from a video archive.