interviews

This conversation published in the catalogue Ricochet # 4: Ahmet Ogut, (published by Museum Villa Stuck, Munich) November 2010. Translated from Turkish by Iz Oztat

Memory is not dead, but it is often comatose
A Conversation Between Ahmet Ogut & Onder Ozengi

Onder: History and how it is told-or mistold-is a focal theme at this exhibition. In Today in History (2007), and Exploded City (2009), you take certain past events and construct your own historical narrative. In Today in History, the choice of events is completely subjective, and there is no obvious conceptual integrity. The work comprises an open-ended assemblage of mostly absurd, but also sometimes important incidents that took place in Turkey from 1961-2007 as well as a few important events considered to be transition periods.
There is more conceptual integrity in the selection presented in Exploded City, in which you focus on particular facts or objects to construct the narrative. However, this work, too, gives the impression of being a fragment of an open-ended and infinitely expandable process. What both historical narratives have in common is that they have a goal. As Walter Benjamin points out in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, [1] historical narratives assemble moments, which have been fixed in the past and moments that are isolated from what comes before and after them, in order to legitimize a goal, discourse and ideology. This is true both for important national narratives and historical narratives of the oppressed. All entities which initially exist in the present constantly change this configuration to be situated historically and rooted with events and facts that are fixed in the past. In a political context, this makes history an area of dissent as opposed to consent. This is the primary perspective from which I choose to view these two works. I am curious about what you think. How should we compare the historical impact of those who possess political power to have a say, by means of certain mechanisms of inclusion/exclusion on the one hand, with your achievement in this exhibition on the other? What is the significance of the political in the historicity that you construct with these two works?

Ahmet: The reality that we all know and Benjamin emphasizes is that in historiography, the historiographer sympathises with the victorious. Such history consists of a narrative passed on from one "victor" to the next. [2] So, it is a prototypical and quite manipulative notion of history. In Today in History, Exploded City and On the Road to Other Lands (2008), which rely on real data from recent history, I try to shed the prototypical presentation of history and enable the reconstruction of history with information that is otherwise "socially repressed" in the depths of our personal memories and does not appear as important at first glance. I believe that a rhizomatic conception of history constructed individually by each one of us in our parallel lives is possible. It is important to view recent history in this way, because it has many common denominators with our individual past and experiences. For this reason, in Today in History, I took as my point of departure Turkey in the 1960s and, in Exploded City, the 1990s. In Walter Benjamin's words, we are talking about a past loaded with the present, or if we put it differently, about a notion of history that hunts in the jungle of the past to capture what is contemporary. [3] In these works, instead of providing information that can be combined to serve a single dominant ideology, I put together a more antagonistic set of information. It can be explained more directly in Hakim Bey's words, "If the state is history, as it claims to be, then insurrection is the forbidden moment." [4] We need to remind ourselves over and over again of these forbidden moments before they are pushed into the depths of our collective unconscious. The historicity that I construct in these works is political precisely because it reminds the dominant historical understanding of what it wants to forget. A crucial point is that it also indicates exactly what is transformed by politics.

Onder: This act of reminding upstages the historian and demands a role on his stage and a political position. It is a point, where what is aesthetic becomes political or the aesthetic constructs its own politics. [5] This position should of course be situated - not in spheres of domination - but somewhere in between, somewhere which is yet undefined, something between the lines of what has been said and already inscribed. This means articulating a new position by inventing new conflicts and areas of agreement between intertwined or strictly contrasting blocks. This seems like a space that will be opened up by a new configuration of things, namely, by placing certain things in opposition.

Ahmet: Upstaging the historian and politicising memory is a topic that is popular in cinema. I have built on this by offering a comparative reading of Exploded City and cinema. In the documentary Ici et ailleurs, which Godard, Mieville and Gorin directed together in 1976, there is a scene in which, a small girl is reciting an emancipation poem among the ruins of Karameh, a city in Jordan. Of course, there is a very important difference between the loneliness suggested by this scene of a screaming child in real ruins and the loneliness suggested by Exploded City. In Exploded City, ruins - naked remains of reality - are replaced with representations, childish models of those buildings as they were right before they were destroyed. The innocent and desperate child in the documentary is replaced, too, by the adults viewing Exploded City. Yes, even if we are outside, we still sense a belonging to Exploded City and feel the need to empathise with its imagined but also real inhabitants. In the story accompanying the installation, we witness the moods of the city's inhabitants. The future of Exploded City's inhabitants is our past and we all experience the "cacophony" of knowing this. The point that is interesting and hard to grasp is their insistence on trying to intervene in a negative future, which they know they cannot change, and how this fact becomes a routine part of their reality. We see another example of memory becoming part of the routine of daily life in Christopher Nolan's cult movie Memento (2000). The protagonist Leonard, despite the amnesia he experiences after the murder of his wife, creates an extraordinary memory for himself based on documents, notes, photographs and even tattoos. It is a visual and tangible memory - not a "dead" memory, but a lapsed memory. So memory is not dead, but it's often comatose. Marcel Proust, in his novel Swann's Way [6] suggests that the past is somewhere outside the command and comprehension of the mind, hidden in a feeling and triggered by an unexpected object. Stumbling upon that object before we die depends on a coincidence. Knowledge of the past does not vanish, and to be reminded of a special incident it is enough to encounter the object that Proust talks about, in other words, "the sign". The buildings I chose for Exploded City are the aforementioned "signs". Our memory can regulate the past, with its traumas and mistakes in only two ways, either by constantly forgetting, or by constantly remembering. While it is obvious that we are conditioned by the powers that be (the "victors") to constantly forget, I believe that it represents a great opportunity for all of us if we make remembering in constant intervals an "autonomous" part of our daily life.

Onder: That sounds like a Beckettian approach. A cycle of try - fail - try. In my opinion, the "intractable memory in coma" to which you refer, very clearly describes the scene in Things We Count (2008). The defining element of this work is the effort to reorganise in a museum, or in the other places they have been stored, the agents of events, which have left permanent traces in the past, in history or maybe in subjective memories. In this passive and neutral area, these objects seem to wait for reinterpretation in the wake of a Foucauldian archaeological excavation. And to go back to Exploded City, this also opens the way for a reversed reading of that work. However of course, we should not overlook the fact that the relationship between subjective and collective memory is more indirect and the potential analogies, which can be constructed, are more intricate. One of the associations that can be proposed between your works in this exhibition is the subjective reproducibility of all traumas located in (or erased from) collective memory in new and different ways. I am currently working on an oral history project on Armenians living in Turkey. There, the simple reconstruction of the conflict by different individuals provides potential new relationships between remembering, memory and historical narrative. A murder that constituted a turning point in the history of where we live has been perceived and remembered in a variety of different ways. In one of the interviews on this subject, a nationalist/conservative woman in her 80s unexpectedly said that what had confirmed her opinion on this question was the image of Hrant Dink's body on the street - and the hole in the sole of his shoe. Despite all the grand debates, discourses and the networked structure that constructs historiography, a simple and spontaneous association can provide a more visible picture. The narrator's attention snaps at a simple image that displaces all the identity, culture and class differences produced by the dominant narrative.
I think of your The Pigeon-like Unease of My Inner Spirit, (2009), in this context. In this performance, the blind painter Devorah Greenspan painted the narrative centred on Dink by mediating it through her own experience. She distilled the information concerning a person/event/trauma through her own process of reception, and presented it to the audience in an obscure space. This was a work, which referenced the fictional nature of history with the subjective reality constructed by a blind person. This phenomenon or metaphor of fumbling in the dark, the ambiguous axis of past/future/present, can easily be associated with your project about Bas Jan Ader's performance In Search of the Miraculous (1975) which ended so tragically. Leaving aside the artist's utopian claim, it is interesting to examine how your wish to reconstruct this action can be evaluated in relation to history. What you undertake in this work is something that I believe you often do, that is to provide your own production with historical reference, and construct your own historicity.
Again, I want to go back to the beginning and put your work in a political context, in order to talk about two things I am curious about. The first thing, as you also mention, is the desire to raise awareness in Beckettian style, the second thing is related to the ethical dimension of the topic. In Infinitely Demanding, Simon Critchley [7] discusses the process of committing to an
ethical demand. He discusses the commitment, which starts with the affirmation of a demand outside the individual, and the relationship between action and the desire that sustains the action. Where does this ethics of commitment fit personally, politically and historically in your work?

Ahmet: According to Critchley, the individual who is disillusioned (in despair) due to the injustice in the world, transforms the anger s/he experiences into an ethical demand. I believe that feelings such as despair, devotion, anger, justice, pain and the consciousness of the individual, who takes action for ethical demand, can play an important role in transforming the historiography of the powers at be. As I mentioned at the beginning, we should all take the initiative by individually constructing narratives that can exist in parallel and allow for a rhizomatic notion of history. Instead of a single and all-encompassing notion of history, which is ideologically driven, we should disperse minor and multiple narratives. I suggest an autonomous conception of history against an authoritarian notion of history.
If we come back to the try - fail - try cycle, there is a fundamental difference between the first "try" and the second "try". It is crucial not to repeat the same mistake. It is necessary to distinguish this cycle from repetition. As you said, the form of the relationship between subjective and collective memory is very important here. What needs to be done first is to search for ways to repeatedly emancipate subjective memory from the collective memory. In other words, how do we experience history?
In the works mentioned, I tried to create a live experience for the audience by taking as my departure point the facts of recent history and my totally subjective point of view. I believe that such "moments of experience" can act as zones of short-term freedom for memory in a coma. Cinema or theatre allows for the live experience (the moment of watching) by re-enacting fragments from history. My desire is to transform the "moment of experience" into a "site of experience" so that the audience can become part of it. By creating a "site of experience", the audience can explore the knowledge that they already possess, namely the memory in a coma. The hole on the sole of Hrant Dink's shoe as he was lying on the street left an imprint in the depths of many people's subjective memories. I grappled with how to address such a traumatic event without using any representative images. It was an event that took place in the middle of the day in front of everybody's eyes. I chose to use two unconventional methods. The first one was blind painter Devorah Greenspan painting Hrant Dink's portrait based on my narratives. The second one was a fictional text, "The day I was shot" written by Hrant Dink in the first person, in which he expresses how he felt at the moment of his death. My aim was, instead of just presenting a painting, to transform the work into a space of experience. I was aware that working with a blind artist is a sensitive issue. That is why I decided to turn her disadvantage to our - the audience's - disadvantage. It was us who needed light, not her. For this reason, Devorah painted in a pitch dark (black) room. The audience went in with small torches. It was possible to view the painting only partially by torchlights that were occasionally turned on and off. Nobody saw the painting in its entirety.
I do not perceive the above work above as homage to Hrant Dink just as I do not think of Guppy 13 vs Ocean Wave (2010) as homage to Bas Jan Ader. I only ask this question: what kind of relationship can we establish between the past and the present? Bas Jan Ader's last project In Search of the Miraculous ended tragically as he disappeared while trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a tiny sailboat. My goal is not to reproduce his unfinished journey; I have merely tried to recreate the conditions of that experience for the audience. I found the same type of sailboat that Ader used, a Guppy 13, of which only 300 were produced in USA in 1974. I bought it and got it shipped to Amsterdam. I invited visitors to live through Bas Jan Ader's experience, albeit it only for a few minutes, in this sailboat on Amsterdam's waters. The only rule was that everybody had to get on the sailboat by themselves. So, I recreated exactly the same physical conditions of Bas Jan Ader's experience. In the video, we see a fictional documentary, in which Guppy 13 sails backwards to start from the end of its uncompleted journey. When we look closely, we notice that the single passenger on Guppy 13 is constantly changing. The music we listen to while watching the video is a Henry Russell composition playing backwards, which was part of Bas Jan Ader's last project. In a way, it is the documentary of a journey backwards in time. Bas Jan Ader's Guppy 13 was found near the shores of Ireland by a Spanish boat and taken to Spain. The boat was stolen a few weeks after it was found. My Guppy 13, too, got stolen in Amsterdam a few weeks after I completed the project. This mysterious coincidence cemented the project's relationship to the present and future. The unfinished journey of Guppy 13 continues. If you happen to come across a yellow Guppy 13 one day, don't forget to first wave to it from a distance and then call the police! [8]

1 Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940,
http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism,
New York: Autonomedia, 1991
5 Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, London/New York: Continuum, 2006
6 Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, 1913
7 Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance,
London/New York: Verso, 2007
8 The sailboat was found on October 16th 2010, only a few days after this interview