"One of the most bewildering paradoxes revealed in our time is that on the fast globalizing planet politics tends to be passionately and self-consciously local."
Living in an Age of Uncertainty
Vasıf Kortun: Steering clear of any resemblance to illuminated advertisement signs, you preferred to use LED (Light Emitting Diode) in your work "Don't Complain". So, how do you relate the fact that this material comes from China, the Far East with the work itself? The system of marking your city, yourself is a particularly chaotic and individualistic one in a city like Istanbul. Since it isn't a well-regulated one, the outcome is of an incredible visual richness.
Hüseyin Alptekin: Especially in Istanbul, there is a technologically ever-morphing practice within the city's transient texture of posts, signs, billboards and design. This is a phenomenon that has interested me since the early 90's. I reflect this state of perpetual flux especially in my installations where I draw upon this texture, this city and this life while working. Parallel to the shifts in sign manufacturing techniques from Plexiglas to vinyl folio, and similar changes in the use of illumination and embellishments, my work also imparts these abrupt changes (in technology). Formerly, sofit (a kind of neon cable) had replaced neon; a cheap and technologically low-profile material that would feed on the urban kitsch culture with its flickering long form. Later, other forms of lighting products penetrated the urban texture of Istanbul with global circulation. I had used various lighting materials starting with neon. Besides illumination, I was engaged with the use of billboards with large sequins at the beginning of 2000. Right now, even the smallest of traders is entering into business relations with China, Hong Kong and Taiwan as a dreadful consequence of globalization. Indeed, all of Karaköy's tradesmen are in tune with the latest developments. The shipment of the LED is significant in this context. Practically, it has entered the urban traffic somehow, but at this moment LED's lifespan is a mystery both here and elsewhere.
V: You also worked with light lace. Those works were elegant, different from the other ones, small, handmade.
H: That was quite short-lived. A kind of neon lace. It was spreading under different names, like the light emitting cable. This product disappeared in a blink. The buzz was it was invented in Israel and developed by Russians and Americans, it flopped. In the course of my own adventure with materials that started with the neon, there is the sudden eruption of the LED, it is a new and practical solution largely spreading from the Far East; it's likely to pose a challenge to the never-ending supremacy of neon. LED lifespan is not accurately known so far, although a duration of 55,000 hours is among rumors; in any case it is possible to replace old parts with the new ones, and certainly new materials will hit the market soon. The city is like an organism capable of sheltering its distinctive popular texture by renewing it.
V: The message of "Don't Complain" seems to be unrelated with what you are telling save for your methods of dealing with globalization and tackling with the spontaneity of the city. Couldn't you have written something else just as well?
H: You are right, earlier with other such materials, the material and the text was conceptually and practically in direct relation to the linkage between globalization and the semantic texture woven between the dictum and the sign, and the linkage between the global and the local. The linkage between the dictum of "Don't Complain" and globalization can be only established in indirect and arbitrary ways. It seems to be about a link that is universal in human terms, and mundane in material terms.
V: Could you elaborate on this?
H: My interest in "Don't Complain" as a motto and a form of rhetoric coincided with the eruption of the LED in the market. For some reason, I didn't want to write in another way. Of course, using light emitted by the LED by covering it up is extremely practical and economical, but an attempt at operating by displaying the High-Led stuff, it turned out that this material can also be quite costly. It is a suitable material fitting the double meaning of "Don't Complain", even though the LEDs can only be used as light sources through concealment or visibly as spots of flooding light. The immediate applications of the LEDs, suddenly appeared to me as a material fitting my relationship with the City (Istanbul) with its changing skin and my way of reflecting this relationship in my works; for conceptualizing the dictum of "Don't Complain"; for bracketing it from its everyday meaning. This application emerges as the local's global sensibility's craving for elegance and a pragmatic formula in the "streets" and in "life". In this domain, what lies between the elegant and the kitsch is a slippery ground. At this point, we are talking about the sudden emergence of urban ornamentation and a creative design reflex which derives from the local and reflects the global network of commerce and consumption with the formal and spatial framework that the material enters and circulates in. For instance, while the sequin was an elegant and exotic material with limited areas of application (cabarets), nearly a century later it had degenerated into a street style material, and from there was abruptly elevated back to the field of fashion and a "trendy" status in a strange way. In a way, it was fashion this time which reappropriated the glitter unexpectedly flashing in the streets, and the street took hold of it again through "imitations". The paradoxical aspect of this operation lies in the fact that the local is virtually the raison d'être of globalization, the power mechanism.
V: If we return to the meanings of "Don't Complain".
H: The one telling not to complain is in essence complaining at the same time, and betrays his objection; this is a tautology and not just a matter of "logic". It is a "complaint". A wish and directive based in a system of hierarchy. "Don't complain!", "count your blessings", "be content, you are better off than so many " There is a hierarchical position inherent in this dictum and its deliverer assumes the superior position. It's the tale of the "wolf and the lamb": The wolf accuses the lamb of muddying his drinking water, but he is on the upper side of the stream. (I recall Michel Serres interpreting La Fontaine's tale in this context) From the perspective of the global framework, this discourse is like a crude excuse for the use of force by the power structures. But this discourse is a bilateral one. It is still possible to do something in a bleak world heading for desolation despite everything, however complaining seals off this possibility, chokes it from the outset. Despite all the setbacks and the malice, inertia and redundancy caused by complaining extinguishes other possibilities of struggle. There are things which may be and will be brought about by going on without complaining. Dr. Riuex from "The Plague" by Camus comes to my mind; he never gives up his struggle despite knowing how it will end. Gandhi's, Naipul's hopes for the future for India, their optimism is a similar thing. The importance and, moreover, the realism of a modest optimism. Therefore, I wanted establish the plastic position for conceptualizing this dictum by an ambience that would remove it from the design dimension, even if to a small extent, and gain popularity by applying the use of these LEDs. This was appropriate for my perspective and my work process as well. My aim is not to come up with a motto, but propose to contemplate on a modest proposal and possibilities.
V: So, this complaint is not specific to Turkey or any other particular place.
H: No, it's not relevant for just not for here or there, but for everyone and everywhere. In this globalized world, all the syndromes and illnesses are alike. Instead of constantly complaining, we must develop modest optimisms within individual, social, cultural positions and operations and shelter some things: within individual, social, cultural positions and operations. Otherwise, even feasible actions cannot be taken. What drives the doctor is not just a cure for "the plague"; it is a resistance to the very concept of "the plague" and adopting a "stance" and "principle" for humanity. The humankind's recovery should not just be physical, materialistic or ethical, it should in such a way to enable him to reposition and assess himself in the face of circumstances and events, even if he does not recover. Across Turkey, or other geographies, the "plague" is already spreading in different disguises. This global and epidemic situation wakes the sleeping virus, the potential malice in the local.
V: There seems to be no hint as to how this will be perceived by the spectator. There is distance between your philosophical reading of your own work and the work which is read after your installation, over the cabins. The visitor has to think of the why and what s/he is complaining about. Because there is a verb, but no subject.
H: I am not too sure, but it is open-ended, yet at the same time it is a simple proposition bracketed with illuminated frames. The bracket which you also saw here is actually connected to the installation. For each film exhibited in the installation, there is a chain of events and situations dedicated to someone. I no longer hide that "Don't Complain" is dedicated primarily to you and then Camila on a personal level. But in this connection, the issue is not complaining about the complaint of "complaining" in its pejorative sense.
V: There is modesty in the cabins and the films installed inside. There, when I comprehend a meta-ethics with a focus beyond the self's concerns, geography and relationships, "complaining" takes on a different meaning.
H: The second issue about the installation and the films concerns the style and strategy of their production. A kind of minor art. Disregarding the technological developments and possibilities, working with anything at hand, producing under all circumstances without complaining. Furthermore, within a self-sustained ontology. Running in intervals, the films I have named "Incident-s" consist of studies and collections that spontaneously come about in life and stay unregistered, outside the historical and mediated context. Events, myths, mythologies that go on for a year, for four seasons in a street corner or at a beach by a city for 3-5 hours Reconstructing "history" by entirely bracketing it, breaking the linear and joining the broken pieces. Digging into the history without heroes, the invisible, insignificant history of the present, so to speak. Meanwhile, the mental setting which informed the space for the "Incident-s" originated from a restaurant's structure haunting me since our 24-hour visit to Georgia. If you remember, at a restaurant that was divided into separate compartments assembled around a shared area, we had a weird dining experience where we confined ourselves to a space that turned into a private lodge with the group of people that took us there, and ate and talked together until ending up in a peculiar state of delirium and catharsis. In the small discrete spaces within this somewhat imaginary space, different groups of people were actually going through the same experience privately among themselves. This systematic privacy could owe to some paranoid reason like subjectivity, or designed in response to a form of "social shyness". I had come across similar structures in Mongolia, heard of similar places and venues in the ex-socialist societies in Asia. The Jamaica Bar I saw in Bristol was another amorphous structure with various compartments and walls creating physical illusions and thus giving time to flee from any sudden foreign threats for the ongoing private or the illegal party in the space.
H: The films installed in the cabins are about the pursuit of "sameness" by a voluntary exile, a fugitive who penetrates the local and locality in different cultures and regions. For a long time, I have been more interested in the sameness and common threads shared across humanity rather than differences. We are sick and tired of the notorious "other". We assume that once we turn ourselves into the other, the condition of otherness will cease to exist for the other, yet even if this strategy is conceptually correct; it is fundamentally limited to an intellectual position and perspective like "tolerance" and "empathy" reflecting a chain of command and is derived from a materialistic and hierarchical attitude and system. Understanding the other eventually turned into a pragmatic way of self-awareness. This is a good thing, but if we are to set out from the "sameness" and "commonness" shared by the humankind, we must realize that we are obliged to not just accept but also comprehend its differences and otherness.
V: Why did you build an installation with five compartments? I was thinking of a seasonal scheme based on climates.
H: It couldn't be four, couldn't be double or symmetrical. The four seasons has ceased to exist as well as climatic differences. The symmetrical things and human conditions have diminished. Like the weather going through accelerated changes with global warming, the human condition is also changing, symmetry and mutuality has disappeared from our relationships with the nature. Eventually these five compartments, five cells can end up in accommodating thematic, categorical installations which will spontaneously form themselves with such patterns of propagation that even I cannot grasp right now- with the production of the wooden construction. Making four parts from two things is possible with division and subtraction, while five parts from three things is about multiplication and dispersal. The most economical structure out of a public space, an open courtyard in the middle of a small and symmetrical venue was to facilitate a five-cell structure by spreading out the three units. Furthermore, the convergence of the mental setting with physical reality gave rise to such a five-cell structure. This installation seems to consisting of five cells illustrating and elucidating such disciplines and practices like History (broken history); Geography (displacement); Economy/Ecology (waste, reuse/recycle, renewal, the myth of the garbage collector, contribution to economy and ecology); Politics/Ideology (missing people); Philosophy (beaches and silhouettes / sameness and otherness) in their own intimate structures. Or it can be constructed with utterly displaced realities where everything intermingles, we'll see. For instance, I'm thinking of an entirely personal and melancholic piece next to the film about missing people in Chechnya and Kosovo in one of the cabins. This was also the case with the production process of the films. For example, while I was chasing around another project in Pristine, I remember seeing the snow-covered portraits of missing people attached to the railings in front of the Parliament building, and right after this heartbreaking scene which I mentally registered for no reason, a song of long lost, far away love by Jay Jay Johanson caught me in a record shop. Amid a thousand unrelated heterotopias of the streets populated by armored vehicles passing, rows of massage parlors and vendor stalls ranging from rabbit tail to neckties, this whole scene took on a meaning retrospectively. The reason for the juxtaposition of the missing people in Kosovo with the ones in Chechnya owes to the similarities in the presentation of this reality, this pain and hope. The latest one was a register I produced in the memory of journalist and writer Anna Politskovskaya at a completely personal level.
V: What did you decide to juxtapose with Anna Politskovskaya?
H: After her murder, I put up a striking full-size photograph of her that was printed in the Guardian in my office, the blatant operation for putting an end to her struggle which I was following, made me shudder and experience an odd feeling close to pride. In a way, this was similar to doctor Rieux's struggle with the "plague"; reckless and open to risks. A source of encouragement for everyone. Those days, I was constantly listening to a Russian song about the war in Chechnya sang by an accordionist street musician in Komi Republic, which a friend had sent and later I had tracked down.? Even though I couldn't make much of the song which sounded like a lamenting blues song, I edited this song with photographs of the missing people in Chechnya I found over the web. I realized this: we do not look at the missing people as individuals and human beings when they enter a mediated circulation, we see them as photographs and the reality of these lives evades the mind. Analogous to the striking intonation of this lamenting, reproving, complaining song, I edited these frozen images one after another to form a sequence. This way, I tried to save these missing people from the anonymity they had been condemned to by as dull images, this was a token of respect marked and commemorated by music for these people, the missing: for individual human beings whether they go missing, disappear, or die. This little film became a gesture of respect and commemoration for Anna Politkovskaya in their presence. Actually, she had also taken her place among the missing people. During her funeral, the same mothers seeking their missing relatives in Chechnya were also similarly seeking her with her portrait in their hands.
V: You have dealt with Anna Politkovskaya, there is also Hrant Dink who a lot common with Politkovskaya and who was murdered blatantly like her. Turkey's participation in the Venice Biennale is marked by his silhouette in this way.
H: The situation in Chechnya or Kosovo which I have dealt with, or if you please, constructed by commemorating and commemorated by constructing is actually two-sided. The missing are not only Chechens, but also the youthful Russian soldiers. The accordion song is significant for this reason. I don't know whether the photographs of the missing people belong to Chechens or Russians. In my emails to the "Human Rights Watch" website from where I borrowed these photos, I asked for contacting the photographer, obtaining information and the permission to use the pictures, but there was no reply. Therefore, it does not matter which side claims the photographs and the relatives holding them. What matters is that they are missing. The same ambiguity marks the missing people in Kosovo. Leaving out the Serbs does not lead to a simple solution. The point of my interest and my view does not lie in any one of the sides, it is not a issue of being right or wrong neither. What matters is the stance of the personal in the sense of humanity in this place and time in question. The murdering of people by cutting their throats is a barbaric disgrace to humanity, but torturing them before killing them is a socio-pathological shadow cast by an entirely different catastrophe.
V: I asked because you exposed the issues of conscience between the similar ones and the sames. The media is more and more hungry for catastrophic representations, it doesn't matter what and where they show, just the influx of these images with an increasing dose. The spectator is involved in this. Boris Groys was saying that the real catastrophe starts out when these images come to an end.
H: What interests me here, let's call it the politics if you want, is the missing people independent of which side they are from. I want to question our numbed callousness in our ways of seeing and perceiving by stopping these people from being anonymously mediated images. Actually, we are the ones destroying them. The image within image and this way of posing, making others pose is a rather pornographic construction. A group of people holding photographs of some missing relatives. This is the general picture that comes to our mind. Not their uniqueness, personality, individuality. My political is not specifically about Chechnya or Kosovo and it could well be -, it is about the perception and the mediated mis-en-scène of the missing people. The similarity in operation and our position, our stance in the face of this fact. Tragedies hit close to home for others, but it can be our home one day. If I have made a work in memoriam for Anna Politkovskaya, it goes for every journalist blatantly killed for the same reasons and causes. A reference and homage for all of them in the presence of one. Yet, the operation of the global apparatus regarding these broadcast murders and their projections, the online networks and presentation of these situations runs along so similarly that the underlying sameness is as striking as the compelling sameness observed in the murders. An atrocious epidemic similar to the "plague", a contagious sameness. Another instance making my hair stand on end, was how the people holding photographs of their missing relatives were posed to stand in front of a wall covered I'm urged to say almost decorated with bullet holes in a picture at a web site. Yes, it would be catastrophe if there weren't any more images, but what is removing the image from reality and seeing it as just a picture, if not an approval of the catastrophe to the point of no return.
V: So, why did you become so romantic lately? There is a tint of melancholy in your works about the garbage collector, the beaches. And it becomes even sadder with the music on.
H: That's right, I am also aware of this situation, this mood. I think it is connected to a form of escaping, running away. Running away from yourself, your culture, your dwelling, the communication network, from my friends, my values, my neighborhood, the recess bells from the elementary school opposite, the screeching call to prayers, the traffic, and the visual pollution of the signs around This evokes the romantic artist figure of old times. Working while on the run, penetrating the local essence of another culture you are visiting, maybe being a parasite, dislocation and displacement, engaging in production as a voluntary exile may be the romantic side to it. On the other hand, the emotional aspect infused into the works is not about romanticism. It's a form of melancholy. This is something that is already intrinsic to the things and places I look at, the things I construct and turn into incidents by borrowing them from life. As much as the broken flowers of the garbage collector, the process of establishing clean and beneficial ecological cycles and social myths around garbage is full of melancholy, as realistic as it may be. Yes, garbage is the "plague", but even so the act of building an economical and ecological system without complaining, pulling out a wardrobe out of these, creating a habitat, makes me sad as much as contented. It is a rather melancholic situation that the mainly poor habitants of Bombay create an atmosphere of calm romance just by walking along the beach, some for meditation some for amusement. There is no money, no status, and no identity, mostly nothing involved in this oscillation. The sea, the sun and the silhouettes, this is a melancholic perspective where we can read the peculiarities of the city and its culture from the silhouettes.
V: I start to understand more why you limited your connection with Turkey eventually. You maintain your sanity by staying away. I continue my struggle here in a similar mood.
H: Working in a particular mood results in works reflecting a common mood. Let's identify this situation and its consequences as a pursuit of a different form of knowledge. After few years of disappearance, I came back to the neighborhood with a "historical" work that can be called romantic in the last Istanbul Biennial. One inevitably develops a politics and a strategy when living as an exile. When I returned to the neighborhood with the Biennial, my fears about my place, my neighborhood resurfaced after I finished my work, Every time I returned home, to my neighborhood, the mute black man living near the rubbish bin in the street corner and the myths surrounding him revealed a micro-cosmos of the city, a chronoscopic section of the great global city Istanbul which unfolded in front of my eyes, like a kind of Google Earth. As I came back and forth, I realized that this foreign, illegal, abnormal, unregistered person and the "corner" provided more benefits and solutions to the city than anyone proportionally did with his modest struggle. First, they took away the abandoned car he had occupied, and then the man himself. Because of the complaints from the neighborhood and security reasons. Now every so often he comes with his cart and puts the corner in order all the same and leaves. At this point it is necessary to investigate the reasons of escaping and the state of my voluntary exile. I don't know what else there is, apart from escaping paradigms of the incestuous intellectual and the happy minority, from feudal shadows and contours pervading every class of the society, from the "a la Turca" way of life penetrating the depths of the soul and substance. There is also the versatility fueled by being mobile and itinerant, looking at where you escaped from afar, missing it. The work I produced for the Istanbul Biennial was entirely about having to cope with Hegel and "History" which I detested all my life while looking at Istanbul from outside of Istanbul. I also know that as long as I hated politics I had to get involved in ways I never wanted. It isn't necessary to look for rats for the struggle between the "plague" and humanity.
V: You didn't run away from the local, just kept away from the neighborhood.
H: My distress was rather caused by the Turkishness and feudalism within my own surroundings, frankly it was not an issue of identity. It was something else. It was this way of "a la Turca" that had pervaded every class and segment of the society, from the poorest to the wealthiest, from the most ignorant to the most intellectual, even the top elite and even if further on- the foreigners living in Turkey. It even surrounds and enfolds you and me. To comprehend and long for the neighborhood, keeping some distance is necessary. To keep at a distance enough to focus our gaze on what we want to grasp. Did you know that Nazım Hikmet's only condition for the house he would live during his Istanbul exile was just having a view of the Süleymaniye Mosque from any window? Indeed, I had forgotten that my house had a view of Süleymaniye and was looking at its picture on my desk.