Who Am I Anyway?*
Elmas Deniz: In your works, there’s a common thread I’d like to discuss with you, that is of crowds, communities, and masses. You work on public ceremonies and rituals where there are groups of people, not individuals. In Binibining Promised Land or WEDDING, you train your camera on specific communities. Even in TANKLOVE, the audience you’re addressing are residents of a village. Up to now, you’ve never told a story, never produced a work based on an individual. Can you talk about this decision?
Köken Ergun: There’s actually one work that features an individual, Untitled. I’m the one who performs in this video, yet I’m interested in a group that’s relevant to the issue I’m dealing with. As a performance, I put on different types of headscarves while crying. What I address here is the fact that the Turkish state, with a policy of official secularism, I call it conservative secularism, banned the wearing of headscarves in universities and on state-owned premises. The group who’s challenged by this ban is not small at all. Apparently, I’m not the person who’s subjected to pressure in regard to this issue. Again, it’s somebody else. What I try to do is to put myself in their shoes and to get a grasp of their everyday experience.
ED: In other words, your subject is never an individual. Can you talk a bit more about this?
KE: Here’s something I think about a lot. For me, there are two groups of people. The first group consists of those who act and express themselves as free individuals and believe they can change the flow of events in the world, following a deterministic attitude. This includes people living in the geographical area we’re in at the moment. On the other hand, people in the second group, mostly those I met in the East and more specifically around the Eastern Mediterranean, act with and within communities. I wasn’t smart enough to think about this distinction when I made Untitled. It’s been seven years since I started making art, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I can say my main interest or “issue” is “groups versus individuals.” There must be a concern that’s hidden in me which I can’t figure out easily. This must be the reason why I’m inquiring into this issue. I feel restless if I don’t make works that scrutinise it.
ED: That’s interesting because when you produce works, you say you have an “issue,” something that makes you uncomfortable—you even describe this by using the word “exorcism.” I’m curious as to where you stand as a subject in this situation. You don’t focus on individuals, you are present by choosing the subject, and you always talk about groups and communities. In your work, where do you stand as an individual?
KE: I’m in the work. This has changed and taken different forms over time. But I’ve always been in the work one way or the other. Yet not every project is based on issues I personally feel connected to. I, Soldier, The Flag, and Untitled definitely reflect the issues I’ve been inquiring into, I think these are related to traumas I had in my adolescent years. I step back a bit in WEDDING, as in this video the focus is a social situation. Similarly, TANKLOVE inquires into a social issue that emerges from the political history of Turkey. But it also touches on individual concerns that I have. It is in the end a reaction to simplistic statements that I keep hearing abroad, such as “we are a democratic society and you are not.” I made this project in order to say, “Look, this could happen to you too.” And when I think about Binibining that looks at Filipinos in Israel, I have to say that I’m also an immigrant, living far away from my country and missing my homeland. However…
ED: What about Ashura?
KE: I wouldn’t say I have a lot of personal things in common with the subjects in Ashura.
ED: I think you’ve become clearer about your focus in these years, as you’ve developed a more articulated and well-defined interest in groups, communities and their rituals. Do you think that could be the reason?
KE: Yes, looking back at it now, I think it happened naturally that I developed this way. I guess my interest in communities emerged before I realised it. I have a talent in communicating easily with people and gathering them together. This is the strongest aspect of my artistic practice too, bringing people together and doing things with them. I also open myself up to them. People I work with know a lot of personal information about me. I’m not reserved and I don’t hide much. The project with the Shiite community has evolved differently though, because at first I wasn’t able to speak to them like I could to my Filipino friends in Israel. For a month, I met up with this group in the mosque, watched rehearsals, shot film, but at the end of the rehearsal, I would leave their neighborhood and go back to my life. We therefore didn’t speak much about personal issues. It was only after the day of Ashura that I was invited for dinner at their homes. There we got to know each other better, I talked about many details from my life, but not everything, of course.
ED: In Binibining, the community you’re involved with is together for entertainment purposes, there’s a beauty pageant at stake. But we know they all face serious problems in their lives. In contrast, the community in Ashura has a more serious reason to form a collective, this can’t be compared to a beauty pageant. This contrast must have affected your communication with them, am I right?
KE: Yes, indeed. But I’m also sure that our communication will take different forms in time. I will definitely improve my relationship with them in the coming years.
ED: Are there any projects you wanted to keep working on?
KE: I actually keep working on all of my projects. When I finish filming a group, my communication with them doesn’t come to an end. I visit them very often. If I can’t visit them, we’re in touch through Facebook. Among the Filipinos, there’s only one person, James Dandan, the transsexual organiser of the beauty pageant, who doesn’t use Facebook, so I speak with him on the phone every month. As I’m curious about what he’s up to, I always call him up. We’re confidants. We speak for hours. We gossip too. For example, recently he said, “My friend, my friend, there’s a problem!” as soon as he started talking on the phone. His visa for Israel was about to expire. “I don’t want to go back to the Philippines. I can perhaps come to Turkey, I heard that transvestites are treated well there,” he added. I said that the situation was okay, but not brilliant. “Okay, then I come to Germany, and you find me a job when I get there,” he responded. I told him that it wasn’t that easy, and we needed to get him a visa in advance, etc. And last month, when I visited Israel, Filipino friends who heard about my visit called me up and had similar requests. I felt sad, but at the same time I felt strangely proud of the trust we’d developed over the years.
It’s also been three years since I finished TANKLOVE. Every year I go back to the village where I shot the video, I visit residents, and revisit the marks that were left behind as the tank drove through the village. We have dinners together. This year, for the first time, I wasn’t able to go. And I told myself, “I now feel very scattered, since I’m involved with many people from many projects, I have a hard time following them up.”
I also revisit or reflect on projects. Earlier works like I, Soldier, The Flag or WEDDING evolve through my blogs, which I update from time to time. WEDDING is a more voyeuristic project compared to the recent ones. When I was filming for this project, I would shoot the footage and run away. My relation to the communities was very different then. But now the video is on display in Berlin and, with the people who helped me film back then we’re trying to find the subjects in the video. I want to contact them, invite them to see the video, or send them the film.
ED: Do you think this is an ethical approach that has evolved over time?
KE: Yes, it is. It disturbs me terribly if I can’t get full permission from the people I film. Now it’s much harder to make voyeuristic work for me, because my ethical approach has evolved in such a way. That’s precisely the reason why I want to go back to the people you see in the video and say, “I shot this video years ago, I want to share it with you now.”
Adem, a friend from the Caferi community recently told me he wanted to visit the exhibition in Winterthur. The Shiite community I fılmed in Istanbul belongs to the Caferi group of the Shia. If Adem had said this before, I would have been anxious and kept wondering whether he would have liked it or not. Or I’d have been worried about what the community leaders would have said. But now I feel that whether they like it or not isn’t so important. The project has reached another level. They see how much effort I put into this project, so they would appreciate the work in the end, perhaps without judging it aesthetically.
ED: If Ashura had been your first piece, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to read your work in this way. Your ethical decisions wouldn’t be that visible. Do you agree?
KE: What you’re saying sounds like reversing the Creation. It just had to be this way and has evolved over time. So, I wouldn’t think about it that way.
ED: Let me try to clarify my point. I would worry about the representation of a religious ritual as such, but your attitude and communication with people you film for your work puts me at ease. I’m now convinced. I’m also from Istanbul and I’m familiar with the delicate nature of these issues. That’s why I brought it up. Who speaks for whom? How does one talk about it? Otherwise you’re right, we can’t reverse the Creation.
Well, anyhow. Let me ask you this, how do you position yourself within the artistic production in Turkey?
KE: Well, I don’t really position myself. I don’t even know if I should. It doesn’t interest me much. To be honest, I’m not very interested in thinking about this question either. I simply move forward. This is a question I often ask myself, how aware should an artist be about other artists, and how crucial is it, for an artist, to see other art works?
ED: Perhaps this is related to how you started your artistic practice. Artists who come from art schools think a bit differently. You ultimately decided to make art as you said you didn’t want to be an actor. Maybe this is why you’re not interested in other artists and their works.
KE: Yes, I had no intention of making films in the beginning. But I don’t think this would be a good answer to your question. I’m familiar with artists who come from art school backgrounds. Do I not have similar anxieties? Of course I do. Every artist seeks to be recognized… But what I’m not concerned about is positions at a national level, or even at the level of cities such as Istanbul or Berlin. No wonder I have issues with the nation-state, and I still have a hard time understanding any type of national representation.
That isn’t to say I don’t have a sense of belonging. For example, here, in Berlin, I might praise Turkish food, or say, “Turkey has been doing really well!,” but that doesn’t mean that I feel as if I belong to Turkey as a citizen, or any country for that matter. It is rather something to do with living abroad.
I also like travelling. The most important reason I live in Berlin right now is that I had wanted to live in an international city since I was a kid. One night, I could have a friend from Argentina over dinner, another night I could host a friend from Israel, and another night from Lebanon. Then they could all come together, we could share the same table, the same meal. I just don’t want to be in the same environment all the time…
ED: Perhaps that’s why you work with different communities in your work.
KE: Yes, maybe that’s the case.
ED: When you were growing up, Istanbul was indeed much less multicultural.
KE: It’s maybe better now, but the city still isn’t a crossing point. Unlike the Ottoman Empire, not everyone wants to go there. There’s a lot of traffic in Istanbul, but it’s still not a world city. This is of course related to the dissolution of the Empire and the establishment of the nation-state. But I don’t think these are the only reasons. Anyhow, I’m concerned about the fact that Istanbul, at some point, became Turkified, leaving its international identity behind. That’s why I first escaped to London. Back then, I loved Western literature, partly because of my own interests, partly because of my high school education, and I was fascinated by London in Dickens’s works. I’m sure I would read it differently now. But, you know it as well, every Istanbulite wants to run away from the city at least for once in his or her life. So do you…
ED: You’re saying that you had a longing to live in a cosmopolitan city while growing up. Here it’s worth saying that your work is not only about Turkey. You make work about various immigrant communities and lifestyles in many different countries. In Binibining, you speak English, whereas in Ashura you communicate in Turkish. In TANKLOVE, your audience is all Danish. Here, what I’d like to discuss more is the relation between your works and the places you’ve been to. Perhaps people choose to live far away from the places their identity comes from. They run away and migrate out of the country because of their problems with their own community or nation. Your interest is in representing the lives of small groups like minorities, immigrants, who all live abroad, or away from home. You’ve been in the region that’s called the Middle East a lot, you haven’t made any work on the subject of occupation. Tell me more about your relationship to the geography you are concerned with.
KE: I also run away. For me, running away is related to the relationship between love and hate. We sometimes leave a place because we hate it so much, but then realise we left because we loved it so badly. Love for the country you give up on because you hate it gets stronger when you happen to have a distance from it. I had a similar experience. As I travelled, I came to appreciate my own culture much better than I used to. Although I lived in Western Europe and North America during this period, I started becoming interested in the cultures of our neighbouring countries. Here neighbour doesn’t mean countries that have borders with present-day Turkey, it’s more about various cultures that co-existed during the Ottoman Empire. This is the reason why I’ve often gone to Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon for instance. There are a lot of similarities between these cultures and our culture, from food to jealousy and gossiping. I think this is one of the reasons why the Empire survived for so many centuries, its different communities are emotionally similar to each other. This is not a relationship you would find in other empires based on overseas colonies, such as the British Empire.
So I’m very attracted to the Eastern Mediterranean. There, I feel like one of them, and people treat me as such. This has never happened to me in Western Europe. I’m inspired by this. To be honest, I’m also inspired by conflict. For instance, I wouldn’t be inspired by a wealthy and stable society, such as Germany where a cat stuck on a roof could be on the news. But this is a place where I can concentrate on my work. That’s why I shoot my videos in Turkey or similar countries and edit them in a calm place like Germany. In other words, Berlin is like a library to me.
One day, an Israeli friend who visited me in Berlin told me hesitantly, “I want to leave Tel Aviv for New York, what do you think?” I said, “You could get used to it in time, look how I got used to it here…” He responded, “You could live in any place in the world, and get used to it in two months and make people get used to you as well!” As I said earlier, I have good communication skills with diverse groups of people. This is actually my artistic practice as well, but would you call this art? I don’t know and I’m not really interested either. You asked how I position myself in the arts community in Turkey. If you asked the same question about Berlin, I wouldn’t be able to answer it either. Maybe that shows I really don’t care. But I’m not saying this because I feel hurt by these communities. Some say, “I never go to exhibition openings!” This is not my approach. Recently, at the opening of the Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin exhibition at SALT in Istanbul, I saw a statement on a wall, which made me very emotional, it made me cry: “I love art, I hate artists.” It’s a beautiful saying, it’s deep. Hate seems to be a strong word, but it’s also very delicate. Hüseyin is very sincere about it, not just reactionary or bitchy, I know this because I know him. What I like more is to get to know the artist’s personality and then look at his or her work from that angle.
ED: That was precisely what I wanted to ask! How important is it to know the artist’s personality?
KE: I think it’s very important. Also, the person who sees my work should be able to find a couple of things about me in the work.
ED: This is actually an answer to my previous question about your presence in the work.
KE: I’m always present in the work, but I don’t seek to push myself to the front. Alfred Hitchcock is always present in his films, or David Lynch plays small roles in his work, or the brush strokes of Van Gogh are his authorial signature. I don’t aim for such visibility. I would like to be present in the work in a more abstract way. My presence rather involves spending a lot of time with the subjects in the work, to think about and with them, and most importantly, to be sincere about all this.
ED: Your work can be very inspiring for people who have “sterile” lives. I mean those who live with people similar to them, but you show groups that one would be less likely to encounter in their lives. Ashura, WEDDING, and Binibining explore unfamiliar communities, which may tell the audience that they live in sterile conditions. Would you say so?
KE: Yes, I sometimes want my work to be a slap in the face. I am actually a little mischievious. In my work, I therefore reveal what I hide in my daily life. In TANKLOVE, I made a tank drive through the streets in Denmark, because I was so angry at Europeans and North Americans. I wanted to say, “How dare you try and teach us what democracy is? Take this seriously, one day this could happen to you too.”
In Kiasma, in 2003, I worked on a project called Kimo, with Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center. We recorded voices, talks, daily routine in Platform’s office and gallery, to be used in a sound installation. Vasif Kortun, director of Platform, used the terms “inhale” and “exhale” for this. That’s to say, we would inhale the sounds in Istanbul and exhale them in Helsinki. In contrast, I always thought of the term “vomit” for this project. I was perennially angry about the sterile conditions in Europe and the resulting attitude of Europeans looking down on us. I wanted to say, look, there are many different worlds. I work with Filipinos in Israel, a group that many Israelis wouldn’t notice, or the Shiite minority that many Istanbulites don’t know about… It is similar to what our grandmothers would say, “Look son, see how many different lives are out there!” This is what I want to show.
ED: Here I’d like to clarify why I asked about how you position yourself in Turkey. I’m interested in discussing your thoughts in regard to exoticisation and identity politics. For example, in the reception of your video Untitled, there’s a big risk of exoticisation. It’s therefore better that you can move through different international contexts beyond the one and only in Turkey.
KE: Let me ask the same question to you. How do you position me?
ED: Well, I make comments rather than ask questions. It’s a good thing that you don’t position your work only in the Turkish context, this gives you a larger and more flexible space. We nevertheless see many art works that don’t go beyond exoticisation. I think you’re different.
KE: Actually I can’t exoticise myself, because I don’t find myself interesting.
ED: I wanted to bring this up because there’s a common problem that we often encounter. I call it false modesty. It implicates the Western person who acts as if he or she’s equal to you on the discursive level, and still secretly looks down on you. This usually results in the exoticisation of the work, or else the source self-exoticising. I was curious about your take on this.
In your works, you’re the cameraman, editing person, producer, and the translator. What would you be if you were to pick a persona? Would you call yourself a translator, observer, or an author?
KE: I call it “attached observer.” It could also be called “participant” but, actually, it’s not really possible. I’m not a Shiite, I’m not a Filipino immigrant woman, and I’m not a Turk who was born and grew up in Germany. To put it simply, I’m just a guest that’s welcomed by the host.
Also, the groups I focus on don’t really like telling stories, shooting films and distributing them, whereas in my culture it’s the opposite case. So here I act as a “mediator.” I wouldn’t call myself an author, a director, or even an artist.
ED: So maybe this should be your definition of art.
KE: Hito Steyerl had a similar thought. She said to me, “You’re a messenger.” I would agree with you. It’s helpful to hear someone else’s reading of your work, you understand your own practice in a better way.
ED: What’s beautiful in your work is that you show minorities or groups that are rarely represented. On the one hand, there’s a risk of ethnic documentation, exoticisation. On the other hand, your work is loud in a positive sense. You use documentary techniques, for instance you live with the groups you work with, as an “attached observer,” and you use a camera without tripod. What’s your relation to or distance from documentary practices? How close do you get to the “other’s voice”?
KE: I don’t think about my work as being documentary, but there might be similarities. I’m aware of other artists who work along similar lines, but I don’t have a pressing urge or curiosity to see their work. In terms of technique or method, what I care about most is that there’s a unity between myself and the people I work with. I don’t see the projects only as film projects. With time, I came to realise that my projects are tools for me to understand myself.
ED: Or the opposite.
KE: What do you mean?
ED: Let’s say you’re the messenger who finds a message to carry. The message is for both the subject and the audience. You also help the subjects to know themselves. You provide the opportunity for us to get to know these groups as well. You shouldn’t underestimate yourself.
KE: You’re right but I’d hesitate to make such a statement about myself. I want to stay humble because otherwise it feels like it’s egotistical.
ED: I know that you edited your footage for Binibining according to the aesthetic choices of Filipino girls. You consulted them and you were inspired by them. Perhaps what makes your work different than the documentary format is that, in post-production, you edit the footage and remain as close as possible to their reality. You keep their reality in the final work.
KE: More recently, I’ve become interested in raw footage. This interest started with my involvement in the B’Tselem archives in Jerusalem. I got very excited when I learned that these were documentary filmmakers who started this video department. Apparently, they stopped working as documentary filmmakers and established this department at B’Tselem.
ED: Really? That is impressive.
KE: Yes, the founder Oren Yakabovic and the current director Yoav Gross both used to work as documentary filmmakers. They told me that at one point they didn’t find their practice meaningful and effective enough, so started this project. Shooting Back, the video project of B’Tselem, has been very inspirational for me. They took a new approach to the documentary format, in which there is an expanded concept of authorship. This is an important project for both the world and the communities in that area.
ED: Have you ever used hidden cameras to film a community?
KE: Absolutely not. That’s the thing I hate the most. First I become friends with the community and during that time never take my camera out of my pocket. I ask for permission when the time is right. If permitted, I start shooting and take it very slowly because I try to see what my boundaries are with the community. If not permitted, I don’t make any images at all. I get very angry at artists who film without permission. I remember watching a film by Mark Boulous at the last Berlin Biennial, which was about oilfields in the Niger delta. In the film, there was a section in which the cameraman or the artist, I’m not sure exactly who he was, insisted on shooting a Nigerian man with his camera although the man had clearly refused to be filmed. I couldn’t stand it and had to run away from the Kunstwerke. I had goosebumps. Similarly, Yael Bartana has entered an orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Israel with her camera during Purim celebrations and made a film from this footage. It was obvious that the artist was a stranger to the neighborhood and the residents weren’t happy about her camera.
ED: When the first version of Binibining was shown at the Overtime Work exhibition, I thought of an aspect of the work that you haven’t discussed yet: conditions of labor. In the video, you show a beauty pageant and we observe people who are having fun. But in reality, their working conditions aren’t pleasant at all. Was it because of this that you added the interviews in the latest version of the work?
KE: Indeed, a second voice was needed. It’s a very complicated situation. Think about it, you go to Israel and in the midst of all those conflicts you make a video about the beauty pageants of Filipino domestic servants! It sounds odd even in this short sentence! I had to include an intimate layer so that the video wouldn’t immediately evoke irony or sarcasm. I had to add individual voices living in this community. James had to talk, and Mary Lou did too. It would have been unfair to them if the project had only been about the film of the pageant.
ED: Can you also talk about the magazines you’re using in the gallery space? Why are these publications part of your presentation of the project?
KE: There are five magazines for the Filipino community in Israel, such as Focal, Manila Tel Aviv, Kapamilya, Mabuhay Israel, etc. These remind me of Merhaba magazine for Turkish immigrants in Germany. Immigrants’ magazines have similar characters in very different parts of the world. They keep the community together, they ease the longing for the homeland, protect the language and the culture. Almost like immigrant communities living in the same neighborhood. It serves a similar purpose. For instance the bus station where the beauty pageant takes place, Tachana Merkazit, is a public space under immigrants’ control. The fifth floor with a lot of shops is called Manila Avenue. Filipinos own all the shops. They cook in their spare time at home and sell the food in Manila Avenue on Saturdays. Some shops import goods from the Philippines. Bar-goers drink Filipino beer. In short, this is a place to satisfy your longing for your homeland. There’s colourful human traffic here that looks similar to what you find at the main bus station in Istanbul. Oh, by the way, in Germany Turkish immigrants are legally allowed to open shops but in Israel Filipinos don’t have this right. A Filipino woman can only open and own a shop in Tachana Merkazit if she has an Israeli husband. Also, work permits are only given to domestic servants and are limited to four years.
Going back to the magazines, I should say that they started publishing these magazines ten years ago, so I wasn’t able to display all of them. According to the selection we’ve made, we will make a collage of the magazine covers from the last three years and mount it on a wall, in non-chronological order. There are numerous subjects common to these covers: beauty tips, deportation, violence against women, etc. There are many covers with images of women who have been beaten, as well as images of women in beauty pageants. The audience therefore has the opportunity to scan the last three years of this community. Another interesting detail, the back covers of these magazines are the biggest and the most expensive spaces for advertising. We observed that many magazines had no ads on the back. Instead, there’s an image of Jesus and it reads, “Jesus, I trust in you.” This image also reappears in the Divine Mercy Chapel which they built in an abandoned building. This image of Jesus is part of the collage on the wall, highlighting the role of religion in this community.
ED: Would these images help you to relate Binibining to Ashura? Would they say something about the juxtaposition of two very different groups within the exhibition space?
KE: Yes, indeed. Filipinos in Tel Aviv are closely associated with each other through Jesus. The Shiite minority in Istanbul through Hussein. Both lead us to the same point: my interest in religion.
ED: I remember seeing a couple of books about this in your library, and also your emphasis on this subject in your recent talks. We also discussed religious excitement when we watched footage from Ashura. Can you elaborate on this?
KE: My interest in religion started as I traveled to the East, before Ashura, during my work on Binibining. I don’t think of Istanbul when I say East—there’s “East” in Istanbul but we don’t experience it as it’s not “cool.” I find this problematic. My city governed the East for thousands of years. When it separated itself from Rome, Emperor Constantine called the new empire the Eastern Roman Empire. As for Istanbul, we’re talking about the centre of the East for more than 1,500 years, 1,000 years in the Byzantine Empire and almost 500 years in the Ottoman Empire. We are however unable to see the East from here. This is in the end related to the Republic and its education system. On my first visits to Beirut and Jerusalem, I realised the significance of religion in bringing people together, and this has had a crucial impact on me. This was also when I discovered the Sufi mystic and philosopher Ibn ‘Arabî, and I was reading Crowds and Power by Canetti.
ED: This was perhaps inevitable because of your interest in communities. Rituals are eventually embedded in religion. But it seems that you look at religions from a different perspective, one in which it acts as a “social glue.” You also hate the “other glue.”
KE: Yes, I hate nationalism.
ED: You hate some social glues and you approve of others. This is visible in your work as well…
KE: I have a yearning for a world in which there is tolerance, co-existence, friendship, hospitality, and the like. I may sound romantic here. You may even think of the question and answer section in beauty peagants where we always poke fun at the contestants who say they want “love and peace.” But they’re right! This is what we ultimately want, love, peace, and friendship. Not to live in a permanent situation of war and conflict.
I’m impressed by how religious people are calmer and have a more relaxed world view. They have more tolerance. They endure pain and are able to see solutions to worldly conflicts in a much calmer way. I didn’t experience this while growing up. For instance when I started acting, what was important was individual success. Individuals would try to be better, to compete against their peers, and aim higher in order to prove themselves. One day, Professor Dikmen Gürün, who I worked with at the Istanbul Foundation for Art and Culture back then (and later became my PhD professor), said to me, “Köken, you sometimes—consciously or unconsiously—step on people’s toes to bolster your own ego, your own success. I don’t approve of it and I can’t stop you. But keep on doing it. Because eventually, people who act like this move forward in the world.” She added, “One day, you’ll understand me.” I’ve changed a lot since then, and always mention Professor Gürün’s name with respect for her valuable advice. This process coincides with me getting more and more familiar with faith. I came to think, like Durkheim, that the essential difference in humans is between believers and non-believers.
ED: This is also related to the competitive nature of contemporary capitalism. Religions have always focused on humbleness. This is not specific to the East, it has also existed in the former cultures of the West. Yet, in time, this approach has disappeared as lifestyles have changed drastically. Prior to Ashura, had you ever worked with a group that was related to religion?
KE: No, I hadn’t. I didn’t even think about religion when I was a kid. In our social circles, this is a common thread. We learnt about religion in middle school, on the compulsory religion course which was only an hour a week. We were very confused. The teacher would talk about God, the creation, heaven and hell, and we would hang on his words forever. We would ask tons of questions, “Where do we go when we die? Is masturbating a sin? ” Some of us would believe every word he said, and we would worry about this person, saying “Oh, he will become a pious Muslim.” People who prayed were called “pious Muslims” with a negative connotation. The current paranoia about the ruling party AKP emerges from this specific mindset. We are taught well to believe that religion is a truly bad thing.
While growing up, I started getting interested in religion. I gained certain values that the republican ideology has refused to offer. And this has been very positive for me. I have a very specific approach to faith. There’s a saying of Ibn ‘Arabî which I really like, “They all believed in their own prophets and I believed in everything they believed in, all together. ”
I also believe that we all can be prophets or philosophers, but the current system leads you to consume ideas rather than produce them. There’s a type of individual who makes collages of thoughts by dropping other thinkers’ names. This is also prevalent in academia. By travelling and seeing, I learned that every person has a certain capacity, he or she is valuable enough to be anyone, even God. Here I use the word “God” in a humble and humanistic sense, like the Sufi philosophers use it. I try to highlight this. We can all also say something meaningful. Every person is valuable and capable.
ED: This is also visible in your work. You show the social value that not-so-visible communities create. You don’t talk about it in this way but you’re making it worth knowing by putting these images out there. You say that everyone can produce value. So when we contribute to the “larger collective”…
KE: … the collective becomes stronger! The bottom line is that I’ve become bored of individualism. But, it’s strange that what we do in the arts is closely associated with individualism.
ED: Here I want to mention art’s potential to change society, it is a cheesy topic but I still would like to ask you. Could your work contribute to this idea? Or would you say that you seek to educate yourself more and this will eventually have an impact on other things and people?
KE: The second. First, you have to know yourself. If I claim I’m making any changes through my work, I would be complicit in the Western individualism I’ve been criticising…
ED: … and get closer to being the detached observer…
KE: Yes. What I’m interested in is knowing myself. I don’t have any intention of changing people. I don’t think people have the right to change others or nature. But the education we received taught us that individuals could and should change the world. We were even taught the very strange saying, “One Turk is worth the entire world.” Some religious groups believe that humanity can’t be controled or managed by rules that are created by humans. Some of us simply criticise this as Shari’a. We talk down to these groups as we think this belief is centred around rules sent by God, but I think there’s something healthy about this approach. This is similar to why people shouldn’t decide to end others’ lives, I find it absurd that a chosen person can rule other people.
Another thing I observed in religious people is that they accept that there is at least one power above them. And because they’re afraid of this, they don’t take large, destructive steps. Their relationship to nature is also very different. Rather than changing nature, they become part of its flow. Going with the flow and being patient, things that individualistic people don’t like. People have changed the flow of rivers, created dams, built canals. Think of the Suez Canal. Moses parted the Red Sea but after he crossed it, he let it flow again. I don’t know if I make myself clear. This is the type of person I’m really interested in, to live knowing that there are more powerful things than ourselves. There are things we can’t control, and we have to accept this—that’s what I mean. My Filipino friends in Israel are good examples of this. I consult them a lot, they give me advice, they talk me through things… I have learnt a lot from them. In the social circle I grew up in, people would talk down to them and say, “They’re ordinary, ignorant people, they only stay at home and do nothing.” But I’m attracted by the way they approach life. And maybe this is the case because I can’t live like them. I find myself in a dilemma here. On the one hand, I try to follow this very specific lifestyle. On the other hand, I live and work in an individualistic environment. Perhaps at some point, by looking to these different models, I will be able to find another way for myself.
ED: Perhaps religious faith is a way to accept the other as it is.
ED: And I think that the misunderstanding comes from making big generalisations and seeing certain lifestyles and traditions that are not necessarily related to religion as religion.
KE: Yes, as you said, what’s essential is to accept people as they are. Be it through religion, science, ideology, or anything else—I don’t care how, as long as it happens! The medium is not that important as long as the end is the same. This is the biggest virtue, but no one around us can do it properly. For example here in Europe there is serious xenophobia.
ED: This reminds me of David Harvey’s critique of cultural studies departments that exist in many Western universities today. Very briefly, he argues that the Westerner was curious about the East but he wasn’t able to read texts like a Chinese person would read them, the Westerner wasn’t able to produce meaning by looking at the culture and ended up reading it through his or her own lens. Being curious about the East and insisting on not understanding it, I don’t quite get it.
KE: Curiosity is a big topic in itself. To some extent, it’s dangerous. I mean, is curiosity really necessary? This goes back to the discussion of representation. There’s a beautiful English saying, “Curiosity killed the cat, information made it fat.” With Oliver, we talked about how Chinese people are not very interested in other cultures. I wonder, do you think curiosity is more prevalent in the West? Let’s think about the documentary tradition in the West. There are thousands of films about others’ lives. The starting point is mainly curiosity itself. But what about the aura it creates in the audience’s head after they watch the film? Some viewers would for instance say, “I watched a very beautiful documentary, but it’s a pity about these people, look at the conditions they live in.” Do documentaries intend to trigger this reaction? And what about art works? If curiosity doesn’t lead to a sort of co-existence, curiosity becomes dangerous, because it results in a patronising aura.
ED: Similar to tourism, a journey that’s not internalised…
KE: This is a very optimistic approach. I would have used bitter words!
ED: For instance, in WEDDING, you show people collecting money from the guests. We’re familiar with this ritual since we’re from Turkey. This is a type of solidarity, it means helping close friends or relatives when they get married. But from a distance, it looks like a very capitalistic act.
KE: Yes, I have received similar comments.
ED: Similarly, in Ashura, the subjects can be stigmatised as “fanatics” whereas you’re showing a group that gets together and cries. Who would be afraid of a group that cries collectively? Given that, how you respond to this curiosity becomes crucial. What do you think about this?
KE: We can’t control how the audience in Switzerland, or anywhere else, feels about the work. Perhaps it’s good not to control it. People can think these people are fanatics, but I don’t. In order to think along these lines, they have to know me, get to know Turkey, or to become a little familiar with other religions. But we shouldn’t have these expectations either, and no one is to blame here.
ED: I was also thinking about the Arabic script in the mosque, shown somewhere in Ashura. We both know that when the Western media organizations prepare a newsreel about Turkey, they use stereotypical images, including a woman wearing a headscarf, signs in Turkish, a couple of men with moustaches. These don’t include you or me, because we don’t meet the stereotypical image of Turks. Do you feel nervous because an audience that’s used to this kind of image might see your work in a very different way?
KE: No, not at all. It’s not possible to please everyone. If an artwork intends to speak to everyone, there must be something wrong with it. You can’t preach to the audience to look through your eyes either, this would be wrong too. I would be happy and satisfied if one out of a hundred people thought or felt something about my work. Yet, sometimes there are no instant reactions, someone someone can react years after he or she sees the work…
If I may go back to our discussion about religion, I want to add that in religion there are many unknowables. In science, there’s one solution. In a recent article, Terry Eagleton says religion and art, unlike science, share similarities because they both highlight abstract concepts.
ED: Well, I think science has reached that point too, the point of not being able to claim one solution. As you said, science is based on the very modern understanding of one truth. There’s a contemporary discussion, whether we are witnessing the dissolution of the Western mindset that attempts to organize everything. And people are generally unhappy.
KE: I’ll interrupt you here. You said unhappiness. I’d like to talk about Palestine and Israel here. For me, this point is where the East and West truly cross each other. You know, politically it’s a chaotic situation. But when you visit the West Bank, you realise that people there are much happier! There’s hope, although they live under occupation.
But in Israeli society, especially in secular circles, there’s dispair. And in Israel, you generally see more of Western culture. Gradually, hopelessness seems to be a common term to charactarise the Western world. It wouldn’t be an outrageous generalisation to argue that hopelessness emerges in societies where faith is rejected. When we were kids, we used to read that the welfare in Scandinavian countries was something to admire. But at a social level, hopelessness has been prevalent. They also have one of the highest suicide rates.
ED: Because socio-religious rituals are not strong in Scandinavia?
KE: Could be. But there are rituals beyond religion. There always have been. For example, Filipinos in Tel Aviv have rituals at both the church and beauty pageants. They use beauty pageants as social rituals, as a social glue, essential things like bread and water. People who don’t go to church have to practice some rituals too. And this is usually done collectively. People are not alone, they must be social and share.
I will give a talk about Binibining and Ashura in a couple of months. I was asked to title the talk and I decided to call it One Is a Lonely Number. The title is inspired by my close friend Gül. Recently I called her when I was feeling depressed. She carefully listened to me as I spoke. In the end I said, “I think I should learn how to be alone.” “That’s silly!” she said, “We have all tried to do that and, no, it never works that way!” Let it be religion, rituals, social events or science, anything goes as long as there’s something that binds people. And I’m interested in these “things.”
ED: You look into different social glues.
ED: I agree with your statements that say, “you live a sterile life” or, “look, there are different ways of living and being a collective,” but to what extent are you interested in making this social glue visible and recognisable? The works mostly focus on the situation and don’t highlight this glue we’re speaking about.
KE: In my work, I don’t want to reiterate the obvious. I don’t follow a scholarly approach and claim that I will make this social glue recognisable. For instance, for me, rhythym is crucial for editing. I most often start with the energy of the music in the footage. Music leads me. In WEDDING and Ashura, collective dances and moves bind people together. I follow this bodily rhythym as well. For example, the first ten minutes of Ashura shows Shiites beating their chests which is part of their rituals. But I don’t necessarily highlight this as the glue that holds the community together.
ED: What are your plans in the long run? Do you have a project lined up after Ashura?
KE: Yes, I want to work on the gay culture in the West. Over the last five years, I’ve shot gay parades all over the world with the same camera. This would be a more personal project as I’m part of this community. But there are things that I’m not very comfortable with. For example, there’s almost a dress code, there’s a striking identification, “We are here. We are queer.” There’s a routine of going to the designated places, etc. On the one hand, they’re emphasising that they’re different. On the other, they request the same social rights as the rest of society. There’s a common belief that this is the ideal and unique lifestyle for gays. But there are different gay lifestyles in the world, this is something I’d like to inquire more into.
In the long run though, I might give up on representation completely. I think I’m inclined to do that. My approach is anyhow different in the art world, it’s more on the ethnology side. But this might also come to an end. I might leave it all behind me and start writing, meaning I might sidestep visuals.
ED: I would understand if you wanted to start writing. I also have similar concerns about visual representation. It ignores something about the world. You work with a lot of different people and I’m sure you have to ignore many experiences, many stories, many ideas while you create the video. You produce a kind of knowledge. Perhaps this is what you’d like to do through writing, disseminate what’s lacking from the visuals?
KE: In our region, the two religions we’re familiar with, Islam and Judaism, don’t have close attachments to images. However images are very powerful in Christianity—this is something we know from icons of Jesus in churches in Istanbul. They also look very didactic.
ED: Stained glass was the school of the masses. You know, after the iconoclastic period, because of poor mass literacy, images replaced words. The aim was education through stained glass.
KE: Yes, but that’s an easy representation, an image system that dominates you. This doesn’t exist in Islam or Judaism. There are no Moses icons in synagogues. Why have these sensible people kept refusing these images? Because images are a very easy medium, or because images can deceive people easily?
ED: When you think about it, Western culture created systems of organisation, put philosphy in books and used representation. And the East seems to say, “Who am I anyway? Who am I to represent anything?”
KE: Absolutely! Who am I anyway? Thank you! This is important, now I’m relieved. “Who am I anyway”? You have summarised it for me! This is a crucial statement and I wish we could all say this. But a lot of people do the contrary. They say, “This is what I am, and I’m capable of doing things!” or, “I think therefore I am!” How silly and wrong! Some people try to change the flow of life, and others say, “Who am I to change the world?” The second is often seen as passive, not interested in worldly things. But I don’t believe that these types of people would cause wars. I want the world to be ruled by these kind of people. No one like this would convince the masses to follow him or her and say, “We’ll kill you all!” I think this is what Plato implies when he says that philosophers should be the governors of the state. This problem is also present in daily life. We function around CV’s, right? You exist for as much as you have done so far. Both of us produce few art works. Tell me, does this make you less of an artist?
ED: Sometimes I make art and just don’t show it!
KE: Great! I envy that. This is why I wanted to have this conversation with you. But people like us aren’t that successful, you know that.
ED: I can’t criticise global capitalism and become a career-orientated artist at the same time. I’m more of an idealist. And, yes, there are problems. Problems of visibility, for instance. But I don’t care about it at all.
You don’t make works about individuals. You don’t produce fictional stories around one character. You don’t believe in individual characters and you don’t like them. This would be my reading of your work. I think I finally understand why you don’t show individuals in your videos.
As a reaction against modern art, contemporary art has highlighted that there’s never one author and there’s no genius. And it has distanced itself from modern art as such. But I find it sad that artists are now expected to reiterate this over and over again. You’re saying you don’t even see yourself as an artist. This means artists still produce high art. But we should have moved away from this point a while ago. And I don’t agree with “not being successful”. There should be other ways of defining “success.”
KE: I still have hopes about it. I think artists who work like us are recognised as well. But the system is more inclined to prioritise others. Ambitious, career-orientated people will survive more easily. Having an exhibition doesn’t necessarilly mean you’re a good artist. You could build a good network, talk to the right people and then make an exhibition afterwards. But there are people who reject this, which interests me a lot. But, again, the system has already drawn an image of a successful artist. Those who say, “Who am I anyway?” don’t act like this though.
ED: Artists now have the responsibility for doing things the right way. I think artists in the older generation were more free, more “bohemian.” Now there’s a business model. You use Macs, you send your DVDs on time, you drink socially, but you drink less when you have a lot of work to do… Mladen Stilinovic says in his seminal text The Praise of Laziness,“Artists in the West are not lazy and therefore not artists but rather producers of something.” Here we can discuss your work obsession. You have changed over time, I have also witnessed that myself. Have you moved from an analytical point of view to a more internalised type of method?
KE: Yes, it’s like finding the light switch in a dark room. Earlier, I would have panicked and run left and right to find the switch, while breaking a couple of things in the room. Now, I take safer, more confident steps and find it calmly. There are a lot of factors here, including age, experience, and exposure of your work. Every exhibition, every artist’s talk, helps you to move more smoothly. You also treat your work better. In the beginning, I used to work obsessively and torture myself and my material, simply out of performance anxiety. I produced WEDDING in a period like this. It also affected my private life. My partner back then didn’t like WEDDING at all, because I would spend most of my free time editing it. TANKLOVE was also produced with a lot of performance anxiety, and restrictions that I created myself, but when I let myself go with the flow of the performance, I realised the real essence of the work. These are all related to what we spoke about, the obsession of changing nature. I’ve always been very influenced by Stilinovic’s text but, you know, I could change my working methods but in the end I can’t be lazy. That’s against my nature.
ED: No, I didn’t mean it that way. You like what you’re doing and you work because you like it.
KE: There’s a saying in the Muslim tradition, “work comes from faith”. I do understand what Stilinovic says here, your mind is so full that you have to empty it. People are kept busy by the system, they’re always doing something, be it watching television, surfing the Internet, etc. There’s always a noise in our lives. Stilinovic however, finds work in leisure. He says he thinks while he sleeps, and then he goes to the art gallery and sleeps in there.
ED: I read this laziness as an anti-capitalist strategy.
KE: Well, we always tell each other, don’t we, “You work, you work… and then what?!”
Berlin, July 2011