The Artist in Public Life: Lessons from Istanbul, in context and uncertainty.
By Peter Dobey
Monday evening marked the first day of Ramadan for the Muslim world. Tuesday the 9th saw its celebratory commencement wind down. Thousands in Istanbul created ‘Ramazan Sofrasi’ meals up and down the same streets their Prime Minister wants to take from them via his own particular fantasy of Neo‐Ottoman gentrification.
San Francisco Art Quarterly’s first week in Istanbul for the new column SFO‐San Francisco/International provided great insight into the aftermath of the Taksim Square and Gezi Park protests and helped establish a truer context to the unfolding situation in Turkey and the larger Middle East region. Every individual we spoke to provided a subjective and particular kind of insight and opinion. However, there was one common theme: Uncertainty and excitement. Revolutionary events, especially in our time, tend to not have a certain and clarified aim in sight. Governments in general, being regulatory bodies, have an uneasy time understanding this ambiguity, but it also provides them an easy opportunity to dismiss the protesters as anarchistic vagrants with no real aim. We know this well from how our own country reacted to our “Occupy” movements. However there is a deeper issue at the root of this cause that is infinitely more profound. The wishes and desires of the protesters tend to lack certainty as well. The absence of a clear demand is telling and reveals a truth about the ethos of our time. The people know they want something different, but they know not what.
No more so was this clearer than in Istanbul. It is crucial that one must get first hand, subjective and individual accounts from the voices of the people themselves, only then can one truly speak about the public realm. One of the most common complaints of the people of Istanbul was that Prime Minister Erdogan spoke for the private lives of the public on his own behalf and not theirs. In order to grasp any public realm, one must first hear the testimony of its individuals. This is at the heart of the crisis in Istanbul.
During the June 30th gay pride parade that SFAQ was present for, this was especially apparent and lent a powerful political message to this highly symbolic celebration, the only gay pride parade in any country with Islam as its dominant religion. They used the words of Erdogan himself, chanting them back to him as a tool and a weapon of payback. In songs and chanted slogans the crowds loudly exclaimed slogans that can be loosely translated as “yes, we are hooligans!”, “Indeed we are faggots!”, “last week we protested, this week we will have sex again and again!” These slogans were all appropriations of the same words Prime Minister Erdogan used to slander them in his speeches responding to the protests. He had made many publically broadcasted suggestions in the preceding months that the Turkish people should be having at least three children to propagate Turkey’s growth, one of his many intrusions upon the private realm of individuals which carries with it an attempt to orchestrate the desires of others to correspond with his own agenda for the public. The crowds responded by asking, “Do you really want three children
The most sincere testimony I heard from the many people I spoke with seemed to have a consensus about it exuded with certainty and pride. The unfolding events were something that was exciting. Crucially, Gezi Park was especially moving because for the first time in these peoples lives they had seen people who would never dare be seen in the same room together all of a sudden rejoicing exuberantly in a single place, packed like sardines, for anything but a single cause. University students stood with their parents, atheists stood next to practicing Muslims, and although there was initial tension, Kemalist Turkish Nationalists stridently waved their flags with passion and played their Ataturk loyalist music in concert with Kurdish men and women dancing to their own traditional songs of freedom struggles. In a rare display of fraternity, Kurds marched with signs and danced in and around tents set up by the Peace and Democracy party (BDP), which is devoted to the acceptance of their status as equal citizens. It was even so that Abdullah Öcalan, the outlawed de jure leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), wrote a statement from prison praising the protests. Although their was no certainty in the desires radiating from these very distinct groups that stood side by side, their collective energy spoke together, and loudly. It was their subjective idea of a just society that was at risk of being robbed from them. This was a case where the power of one was imbued in all. The collective protests represented the essence of human individuality.
One artist in particular portrayed this like no other, at 8pm on the 17th of June, Erdem Gündüz stood alone in Taksim Square staring at a prominent banner portraying Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, that hangs outside the adjacent cultural center that bears his name which is planned to be torn down along with much of Taksim. He was there for over eight hours before being forcibly removed, even as the police picked through his backpack and clothing. This act of protest, unable to be legally designated as something that could be an offense justifiable of arrest, quickly caught on, and the symbol of protest facilitated by the “Standing Man”, as he quickly became known, began to be mimicked by many others. Not only in Taksim Square and around many public places in Turkey, but soon, the world. By this time everyone from CNN and the BBC had caught him on the streets with some success in briefly interviewing him. A few days later, after he fled into the countryside for fear of being arrested, SFAQ interviewed him.
Peter Dobey: You did not engage in any political or artistic “discourse”, as many art publications like to label political art. In fact you did not engage with speech at all. My main question for you: Is there a responsibility for Turkish artists, perhaps all artists, to take a role in political events and in particular for Turkish artists, their current situation? What has their attitude been? Are many artists interested? Do some of them stay silent? You did but in the loudest way possible.
Erdem Gündüz: It means different things to different people, maybe each person does something here (at the protests), but artists and especially regular people here, they are creating. Some people make actual things; some people are planting seeds, some singing, some making graffiti, others are drawing caricatures, and some are using their own human bodies.
PD: There is this spontaneous creativity happening collectively en masse. Which is perhaps much more profound than much artwork by individuals that makes a blatant protest. I think good protest art comes from deep thought, however the problem is sometimes it is too quick of an immediate reaction with things such as graffiti art. Conceptually political art seems not to touch on actual peoples experiences at all. What I liked about your performance is that it can be seen as political but was not explicitly political; it did not look like “political art”. I think some art can be too blatantly political and not only is it usually quite naïve looking but also accomplishes nothing either.
EG: I remained silent, I stood and looked upwards and without movement. I did it without words, in the absence of words. And it’s a kind of protest, a kind of performance, and a kind of activist activity at the same time. In an art context, what I have done and what others have done is in a way pop‐art, people copied what I did. The other thing is that a possible problem arrived, after it all happened some other artists told me that this had been done before. But for me of course I could and did not know if people had done this before or not. For example one man stood in a road for 6 months, he was almost in his 60’s. A politician woman standing in a justice house, but I didn’t know of these events. Maybe there are many people like me standing in front of violence but of course I could not know.
PD: Well first, why must the art community jump to this art historical context? Even if people did something similar ‐ you were in a specific place at a specific time so it has attracted symbolic attention for a particular reason. Also what is so profound as both art and as an act of human dignity is how the particular nature of your “performance” was harder for Erdogan and his police to criticize or control, precisely because of its abstract, indescribable, and undeniably human nature. EG: Maybe I was the best artist for this performance in the right place and time. It was really hard standing there the whole time; I was intent on staying there to the point of getting tear‐gassed.
PD: Preceding the protests there was protests criticizing the neoliberal Capitalism of the Istanbul Biennale. But what about the ones who profit from the growth over the past ten years in the Istanbul art market? Are their artists who enjoy this neoliberalism? Is the Istanbul Biennale another form of gentrification like Erdogan’s plans for Gezi Park? Is the “hot Arabic money” or “Green money” involved?
EG: No, mainly the people are going out by themselves, they just want their rights. Like women for example, women’s rights. The government said they would bring help and opportunity but what they actually brought is more violence. This is normal, this is the imperialists or the Capitalists or Neoliberalism or religious ideological people who want that kind of system and this system is working, they earn more money. But the rioters are not there for these reasons. They are there for their own reasons. I want to say this is not just one political persons performance. I am Islamic, I am feeding from the past 100 years of art happening in this century but these meta things are not important. We try and understand what’s behind the meaning of these happenings NOW, that’s what’s important. These current understandings are more important than these Meta ideas we put on top of them. I did it for my country and tried to show something for my fellow young people and the citizens because I am also a citizen and the government refuses to have an understanding of the citizens problems, but the public clearly saw what I hoped to give them and when I stood for the 8 hours I saw small tiny lights and this was my hope that this helps the people through my stillness and perseverance. The people who are mimicking me grow day by day and this is a beautiful thing, people standing up with their own hopes through this simple action of mine. After the performance I was not connected to the Internet or phone because I was afraid for my life. This is hard for the Western media and the art people like yourself to understand.
In order to understand that context more SFAQ flew to Istanbul and asked the questions that Erdem had helped to procure. The following are a small selection of responses.
Peter Dobey: Is there a responsibility felt on behalf of Turkish artists right now towards the larger political upheavals? Can we call Erdogan’s project “gentrification” in the Western sense? To what extent is the Turkish art world complicit with this commercialization?
Asli Seven: During this past month what happened is that all the multiple identities we normally hold as individuals living in a complex society with the different roles we play in our everyday lives have been pushed aside and/or suspended and our identities as “citizens” has taken up the center stage. This is where the revolution is happening currently, what we are changing is our ways of being individuals in society and the ways in which we bond with each other. And this transformation cuts through all the previous social and political divides, positions and affiliations and it affects all spheres of the society. What is striking with regards to your question is that our usual affiliations and titles/positions are relegated into a very secondary status and we are all participants of the movement primarily as citizens, and this provides us with a freedom of speech and movement unseen before ‐ as opposed to normal times when one would feel pressured towards representing their “institution” or being “present” as an “artist” in relationship to all the other individuals who are also “positioned” in society, professionally and politically. As anywhere else in the world, the art world in Istanbul is small, fragmented, full of rivalries and competition and gossip. The Gezi movement has given us the opportunity to break these boundaries; people who haven’t stood in the same room for years have come together in meetings and exchanged ideas.
In the end it is my opinion that the current government‐led “commercialization” of the city affects the art world and its institutions in a similar way it affects the social fabric: it prevents all kinds of spontaneous social interactions between people and groups of different social and economic backgrounds. To answer your question, the commercial art world has been developing despite this “gentrification” process and the new money it brings in is mostly what we call “green capital” in reference to Islam. It belongs to a new elite class whose economic power grew with the political power of AKP (Erdogans political party) and they haven’t been interested in arts or culture so far.
It all comes to the question of how we define ourselves as artists, art institutions and galleries. Is art just another commodity to be bought and sold in the hygienic and abstract spaces that the government may choose to “allocate” to us or are we trying to contribute to a collective production of meaning, is our audience only limited to a few wealthy and privileged individuals or do we intend to have a conversation with a wider audience. To be honest I am against a strict separation between “commercial art institutions” and “non‐profit art institutions”. The art world is host to different kinds of institutions and positions and “sales” is as much vital to its development as is “public outreach”.
I am part of a group of artists, curators, art writers and gallerists who have formed in informal groups of discussion during the Gezi events and we are having weekly meetings to discuss what role the art world may play in shaping the future. Given the picture I painted above, there are a number of areas in which we might play an active role, for instance in bridging the gap between the art world and the voters of AKP. We also have prejudices of our own and just to cite an example; a female artist carrying a headscarf and praying 5 times a day has been an odd thing for us. We need to get over these prejudices and open up to an inclusive dialogue against the divisive discourse of our prime minister.
Peter Dobey: What is your subjective opinion concerning whether artists, especially Turkish artists now, should have an obligation to act, and in what way?
Deniz Uster: If it was any other situation, I would say artists have the great advantage of legitimizing the unorthodox and the voice of the minority in a less direct and creative fashion. Having been nomads with our practices, we have always had better opportunities as transmitters of opinions as long as we avoid a restricting elitism in our works and approaches. We already carried this advantage, but now the situation has developed into one of pure equalitarianism throughout all levels of society, so not only artists but every member of society is obliged to act against the continued destruction of basic human rights, disillusioned by a governance that has declared war with its own people. Social media and the Internet have proven to be the most democratic platforms from which the population can promote their own ideas and organize to take action.
Moreover, protesting artists have been directly targeted by the Prime Minister. They have been the focus of arrogant verbal attacks using very cheap language, which goes as far as questioning their integrity: “ Do they call themselves artists?” What we should do is to maintain solidarity in our multiplicity, while avoiding nationalistic and divisive discourses. We should also act patiently and avoid the fantasy that an alternative singular leader exists somewhere to replace the present ruling government, with characteristics we have already seen in Ataturk and Erdogan; centralized governance that opens up the risk of totalitarian regimes.
PD: The art‐world of turkey, but also young and “liberal” citizens in general: What is their relationship and feelings about Erdogans proposed gentrification projects?
DU: Everyone knows that the planned transformation of Gezi Park into a shopping mall and a kitsch re‐creation of a military barracks was not what the protests were really about, and that the protests represented a much deeper unease that grew amongst the public. Our vanishing public spaces as well as the encroachment upon our private spaces were just one part of this discontent towards the proposed moderate Islamic model, the new Turkey, which America tailored for us. The prosperous liberal economy of the country made Turkey highly popular and enviable as a role model abroad, leading to rumors that we are now capable of lending money back to the IMF. People are now becoming aware that this was not the real situation, that the government has been selling the land parcel by parcel to private companies. People were not susceptible to these dealings that have been happening over the previous 10 years, but now there is an awakening. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has now proposed a law that opens up all the national parks in Turkey to construction. There are a large amount of people with conservative values who are hugely against this gradual privatization of the land, so we can’t really limit this discontent to just art world or liberal citizens.
On the final night of SFAQ’s trip to Istanbul, July 3rd, returning to my hostel just off Taksim Square, the statement by the leader of Egypt’s military arrived on the televisions and smart phones of people in the streets of Istanbul. Egypt had took the reigns out of the hands of the first democratically elected president in history, Mohammed Morsi, and had him ousted after not heeding to the referendum deadline set 48 hours earlier by Defense Secretary General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi who was appointed by Morsi himself just last year. President Morsi’s senior advisor Essam al‐Haddad wrote on the Facebook page of president Morsi that “The message will resonate throughout the Muslim world loud and clear: Democracy is not for Muslims” and warned of worldwide consequences initiated by the “military coup”. It was technically a coup but in the end the pressure of mobilized groups of millions of protesters incited it. These ongoing mobilized protests had come to a climax during this past week. At the same time, rallies earlier this week by loyal Muslim Brotherhood adherents denied the very existence of the protests. This bared similarities to Erdogan’s propaganda campaign and media control, which was at complete odds with the reality of the protesters in Taksim and around Turkey, luminary and ordinary citizen alike.
One of the constituent symptoms of the upheavals in the Middle East is there fluid uncertainty. Uncertainty and intransigence are the words of the day which must be given their due context.
Yesterday an estimated 30,000 California inmates refused meals in what may become the largest prison hunger strike in our state’s history. On Thursday the 11th, SFAI will host The Artist in Public Life: A Symposium on Public Practices, which will explore the work and engagement our own arts community facilitate within the public realm and government funded programs. This event allows an opportunity to interrogate the roles we as members of our own community have towards the public domain. Shall we take a stance, or remain uncertain? This is a question that begs a context.