This conversation published in the book Informal Incidents, april 2008. Translated from Turkish by Yigit Adam
Letter from Themroc!*
Conversation: Sezgin Boynik & Ahmet Ogut
Ahmet: Moi Sezgin! I am pretty excited about elaborating on the things we have been talking about for the last couple of days in Helsinki and Tallinn. It was also nice that we had the chance to have a look at my recent work together. As a starting point I would like to form the subject around 'Informal Structures'. I am formulating the conceptual framework of my new photographic series (Mutual Issues, Inventive Acts, 2008) around this issue especially. My basic observation is that if there is no existing structure or potential conditions that have already been grounded in a place, then the structure invents itself using the existing possibilities and impossibilities in that location. Just like the kids in a neighbourhood without a playground adopt asphalt as their backyard and play ball on the streets (Short Circuit, 2006), there is a similar viewpoint in the photographs I have collected under the title 'Mutual Issues, Inventive Acts'. You have seen the photographs, you'll remember them. The common denominator is the construction or sort of invention of daily life within possible means. So without doing your already aching head more harm I move to the point; there are arguments that could become references to this issue in both of your recently published texts in art-ist Contemporary Art Magazine. The first one is the text (On Tactics) that you wrote via the book, Prisoner's Inventions prepared by Angelo and Temporary Services and the second one is the Mladen Stilinovic Dictionary. You also mention Mladen's Manifesto of Laziness in the dictionary. So what do you think?
Sezgin: I would like to begin with your 'Informal Structures' thesis. I believe that if we set out from here we will be able to achieve something not only about your works but also on the possibilities of an informal political movement in general.
We can redefine your suggestion formulated as; if there is no existing structure or potential conditions that have already been grounded in a place, then the structure invents itself using the existing possibilities and impossibilities in that location, in another way - that is a far more conservative way and protective of the status quo - as: Those without a structure will sooner or later find themselves a solution. When our definition is such, the main factor that we disregard would be power. In a situation like that, power would be reduced to something trivial, and perceived as a matter of practicality and speed (or a level of development). If I have to rephrase myself in more friendly terms; power already encourages the repressed and the dispossessed to think that way, and it hopes that they will come up with a solution to their problems on their own. A situation of this kind kills two birds with one stone; it both strengthens the powerful in a sinister way, and prevents the repressed from realising their own strength. This problematisation of mine made in haste has to be elaborated. The biggest nuisance in this problematisation is for sure the 'real strength' of the repressed and the dispossessed. If we were to make this strength collective through Leninist proletarian dictatorship, then the problem of power could be solved with a pluralist revolution. But here the first thing I have to ask you is; do you perceive informal social structures as a political opportunity and if so how do you define this structure outside exhibitions and art institutions? Coming back to the main issue, do you believe that the informal tactics that are widely utilised in art could be instrumental in changing something (power that is)? My theoretical and artistic experience warns me that we should be prudent, critical and pessimistic when this last opportunity is at stake.
I can explain this like so. We could reconsider the whole discussion as a matter of the dialectics of tactics and strategies. As I do not wish to overcomplicate the issue I will neither mention the instructive texts of Lenin on the matter again, nor will I cite that armed struggle leads to the failure of such a discussion as I have explained in my article On Tactics (art-ist No:6). But perhaps I have to start my criticism of optimism that is in adhesion to the revolutionary strength of tactics from Michel de Certau. De Certau's The Practice of Everyday Life, a renowned book amongst art activists, argues that depending on how you use them, even the simplest habits like walking and shopping could become critical. You might recall how the writer, in the famous chapter of the book on 'walking', looks down from the now nonexistent twin towers and with the inspiration from the way the masses of people move, deliberates on the possibility of different paths. Thus the mentality of a disciplinary city could be suspended (as revealed by the Situationists) even by a single person taking the side streets. This is like someone in Istanbul who walks the back streets of Beyoglu thinking that he is doing something subversive. What I mean is, if we don't take the formula that de Certau suggests critically, then there is no way that we would be able to see that the alternative offered by the manifesto Changing the World Without Taking the Power of John Halloway actually mutes the critical strength twice, or that the progressive institutional critique is essentially something that strengthens the institutions.
Because de Certau too, like you, believes in the optimism that people in fact have more prospects than commonly thought, just like you have defined before. In that way going shopping or watching the soaps on TV could also be critical. But the real problem arises only when we start to think that this optimism is just a tactic there to make our miserable lives easier. Or rather, it busts a real political emancipation. Just like saying; 'As we cannot change anything, let us at least choose the side street to the left instead of the one on the right, let's shop not at this market but at the other one'.
Discussing your works in detail after we resolve this issue would prove to be much more fun. But first, I would like to hear what you think about the questions I have directed to you. The exaggerations that I have employed in my arguments, I believe would make our discussion much more poignant and save us from tautology.
Ahmet: I try not to make bold and generalised statements and most of all not to start off from polarities. I find thinking with polarities dangerous. I do not place the nationalism of the repressed, in opposition to nationalism. I also don't participate in the rhetoric of power versus repression. I do not prefer to speak out loud neither from the inside nor from the outside of the system. I believe in a stance, an attitude at the heart, bottom, centre of the situation, much more than I do in polarities. I am in favour of starting off from the gaps that power has. One of the first to realise this is Herman Melville. Have you read Bartleby? Bartleby says just one thing to power: 'I would prefer not to'. I do not believe that power is a perfectly functioning mechanism. Yes, power is everywhere but with its weaknesses and gaps.
If we go back to the beginning once more, there is a point where you misunderstand me: if there is no existing structure or potential conditions that have already been grounded in a place, then the structure invents itself using the existing possibilities and impossibilities in that location - this is not a suggestion, it is an observation. I express an observation of mine just like a social scientist. I am not offering this as a formula against power. I do not believe, as de Certau does, that shopping or wandering the side streets could become a political act on its own. To summarise; I don't perceive the informal social structures just as apolitical stances or a suggestions, but I believe in their potential in carrying us somewhere else. This is what interests me. For instance, in Europe, particularly in Germany, some Turkish people living there were using the 1 YTL coin (which is actually worth 50 cents) which looks just like the 2 Euro coin in automates and they were tricking the people at the tills at big supermarkets and giving them 1YTL instead of 2 Euros. At last there was news on German newspapers saying 'Don't mistake the 1YTL for 2 Euros'. Result: Power falls 0-1 behind. When I was a student in Ankara, we used to cover the magnetic stripe behind the cards they used in the underground, using adhesive and the magnetic band of cassette tapes and travel with the single trip cart throughout the day. These are exciting examples but still they do not prove that informal social structures developing out of everyday life could lead to a wide spread and serious political solution or stance. Nevertheless I believe that pursuing, observing and even practicing informal social structures could teach us a lot and that it could act as a navigator. And with an example from art itself I will conclude: You know that my Light Armoured animation that was presented at YAMA (a giant public screen on top of Hotel Pera) was banned by the Beyoglu Police Department who happened to see it by chance, after 20 days of screening. Why 20 days after the screening starts, why not on the first day? I have provided you with the answer when I began my words: Power is not a perfectly functioning system. It works slowly. A couple of years back, I happened to see a stand at the Tüyap Book Fair with books banned and seized. Think about it, why would you even consider printing a book that could potentially be seized? The answer is the same; power could be everywhere but it takes them a while to be there. In a song by Ahmet Kaya he says: 'When death is at your door, don't make a fuss in the house, when it arrives, you will be gone'.
Sezgin: Of course we do not want this discussion reduced into a battle of tactics. If we are to continue on this track we would have to be able to elaborate on the matter much further than my shorthand descriptions. And as you said, we would have to do this without polarising. But there is one last thing that I cannot but add, in fact power also utilises tactics and speedy solutions. There are two examples that come to mind, one of them is the infamous answer by the famous liberal politician Turgut Ozal to the deeply indebted civil servants: 'My civil servants know what to do'. And the other is the fact that at all the formal gatherings of AKP, there is the use of the worst possible portrait of Ataturk, the hanging of which is compulsory.
We can consider the matter from another perspective. Now that everyone is using tactics, the measure for success depends on who uses it faster and more effectively. So the faster and more creative our momentary solutions, the more successful our proposed alternatives will be. When you transformed the standard cars into a taxi and a police car (Somebody Else's Car, 2005) what was important was that you did this in the shortest time possible and the cheapest way possible. The importance of tactics surface here. Such a 'public' art work that some people would be able to do after long deliberations and thousands of hours of meetings, you manage to do in a few minutes and without anyone noticing. So as you have just said, power is everywhere but it takes them some time to get there. Just like the power noticing your work at YAMA a little late. One could provide many examples to this; the many avant-garde exhibitions taking place in the former Eastern Bloc, even though they were forbidden could be explained through this as well. Those holding the power either turned a blind eye or they did not think them imperative.
Before delving further into the matter, I would like to go back into power, tactics and speed. If we define power as a question of speed (which, philosopher Paul Virilio believes it is and calls his science Dromology, the science of speed) then to be able to turn the tables around we have to be fast. I am very curious about your thoughts on this. Where do you stand when it comes to speed? How do you consider your relation to speed in your own art production and specifically do you think of yourself as a fast artist? With 'fast artist' of course I am not referring to the one who produces the most stuff in the shortest time but the one that comes up with the best means of expression with what is at hand in a limited time. 'Fast artist' might also imply the career driven types sitting at their desks. That's why The Praise of Laziness manifesto by Mladen Stilinovic means a lot to us both. In this 1992 manifesto Stilinovic argues that artists must be lazy. The reason behind his argument for laziness is the fact that many artists are more active as a PR, manager and director of production rather than coming up with interesting ideas. This is a bit like your criticism of art education in Europe. The artists there learn how to promote and present themselves before anything else. As I was saying, being fast means being one step ahead of those in power. But first we have to distinguish the quantitative market (the pressure to produce many works) and careerist speed. I am curious about your views on speed and especially on the two types of speed that I have just mentioned.
Ahmet: I started my presentation at the Becoming Dutch; Caucus meeting in Eindhoven with this subject. There are three main factors that I have merged in my nomadic lifestyle starting in Diyarbakir, moving to Ankara, then İstanbul and now continuing in Amsterdam and my artistic practice: Speed, Distance (course) and Time. These are three concepts that I think about over and over again. As someone who has made his first journeys on a mail train I know what it means to travel a distance that would take 7 hours by car, in 25 hours. What led Virilio to think about speed, if I am not mistaken, was hearing the sounds of the tanks right outside on the streets, just as he was listening to the news on the radio announcing that the Nazi tanks were approaching. I think it is only speed that could render distance and time relative. Back to what you wanted to talk about: What does 'fast artist' mean? As you mentioned the reason behind Mladen's argument for laziness is due to artists concentrating on becoming a PR, manager or director of production rather than producing interesting ideas. There is a very good example to this: The Takashi Murakami documentary by the BBC television. I passionately recommend it. Takashi Murakami has many studios (factories) with the capacity of producing many different things at the same time apparently. And in every studio there are dozens of nameless workers preparing his paintings and sculptures. When I saw the anonymous labourers at the Takashi 'company' I remembered the nameless painters of the Scholastic period who abstain from putting their signature under their paintings in churches. So Takashi has become so fast that he cannot catch up with himself. Let's remember the famous paradox of Zeno; Achilleus being 10 times faster than the tortoise, still could never overtake it.
I consider myself to be an artist related to speed. I comprehend speed as a tool rather than an agent and I take it into consideration always in relation to distance and time. You can see it in many works of mine. Last year I painted a life scale overturned 'Panzer' on a wall. The reason behind choosing a panzer was a very practical one. A panzer, by nature, is not a vehicle designed to be used in cities. The big tyres are there to hold onto rough dirt roads. But then again this 'tank' was painted white and brought from the rural, into the city. The problem is that the tyres of the panzer cannot hold onto the asphalt. There are more occasions then you think when a panzer speeding up a little bit too much into the curve rolls over 'by itself'.
Sezgin: I want to focus a little bit more on the issue of speed, but this time my aim is to arrive at something else. What excites us sociologists about art the most is its use of a language that is much more open, experimental and most of all fast then the cautious and academic (and politically direct) language that we are accustomed to. It is art's ability to suggest certain arguments way before and in a bolder fashion than science. But another point that the sociologist is sensitive on is the potential of the arguments set forth before any research (the fast arguments) to actually repeat a more conservative discourse. So is it possible for an art that is produced fast without any research to show us anything new? You go through a phase of research while preparing your works. Both your last work, On the Road to Other Lands a book that looks like a German passport and the book Today in History on Turkish history comes to mind. I want to ask you something that is very ordinary and boring on this subject; how do you collect your material for research and are you systematic in this process?
Ahmet: The works that have been using speed should be considered not with the time that is involved in their production, but with the experience. Let me sum it up: Both the sociologist and the artist starts off from an experience, an observation, a curiosity. The difference is the aspect of speed and risk that comes with it. Sociologists are often not prepared to take that risk. They evaluate the data, analyse it and come up with a theory. But experience is not an academic research process that leads to a single result. It constantly archives and renews itself, it is much more organic. I do not wish to draw such a clear cut line to separate these two. For instance we both love spending time at the flea market diving into everything that is old, used, listened to, read. I think the flea market is priceless, like an 'open air social museum' where you can buy nearly everything for a couple of Euros. Every piece there has a history. Small evidences of a history that could be written in a thousand different ways. While preparing both of the two artist's books that you have mentioned I went through a research phase of this kind. While preparing the On the Road to Other Lands (2008) a book that looks like a German passport, I used photographs and old banknotes collected from my own family album, the flea markets and second hand book stores in Kadikoy/Istanbul, Kallio/Helsinki and Waterlooplain/Amsterdam. This was not the only research involved of course. The book is in fact about the State Printing House (BundesDruckerei) in Berlin, a press active for 100 years. In here with a very sophisticated technology they print the passports for Germany, Palestinian Autonomous Territories, Moldova, Albania and Romania. They also printed banknotes for countries like Turkey, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Israel. And for countries like Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, Southern Cypress and Lithuania they print identity cards. There are also catchphrases made up for this press in my book like: 'Legality for all countries', 'See the world through our colours' and 'BundesDruckerei is working for your country since 1879'. In my research I found out that all the countries that they print passports for, have an 'eagle' as their national symbol. I used this coincidence as a given (like the map of BundesDruckerei Eagles). So I mixed and matched facts and fictional visuals in the book. There is also manipulation, you see. My intention was to illustrate and open to discussion how this printing press was actually merging the economy of power and the economy of paper (banknotes, passports, identity cards), and yet this was slipping out of attention. To be able to bring this discussion forth I preferred to use a form of theirs; a book looking like a passport going into circulation.
In my previous book Today in History my main obsession was this: To gather a collection of stories that sound fictional, ones to which you would say 'such a thing would only happen in Turkey', in a chronology, and to illustrate the modernisation, economical and industrial development, adaptation to technology in Turkey after the 60s and also portray some political wrongs in an ironic and sometimes tragic manner. I was already collecting these stories for a while. Newspaper clippings, absurd stories I used to hear from friends and additionally some vital political events. It is something that we would have to discuss extensively but if you don't mind let's steer right back to what we were discussing earlier. As all my projects are about subjects that I am already thinking about, I do not go into a systematic research process. I end up collecting quite a bit of the material without realising it. What is left to do is to sort out what goes where.
Sezgin: In this conversation at least we managed to understand how important speed is in your work. So, back to dromology. What caught my attention in your 2004 video work What a Lovely Day is how fast the police car approaches the young man and how fast they search him. The action and gun sounds also add to the pace. Such a routine job done at such haste actually gives more respectability and seriousness to power. We were talking about the slowness of artists in Europe yesterday, but when I come to think about it, it is not only the artists but the police are also much slower in Europe than the ones in Turkey.
In my previous question I risked being boring by asking a very common question, and now I will take the risk of being called a cultural racist and ask; could we talk about a difference between the conception of speed in different cultures, or, are certain cultures faster than others (you have to bear in mind that I am no way near an Hegelian understanding of history)? If I should ask that in a funny way; does the speed of the police have an effect on the speed of the artist?
Ahmet: Your question reminded me of the funny action sequence where Francis Alys tests the speed of a police in Re-Enactments (2000). Alys buys a 9mm Baretta from a gun dealer and starts walking on the street with this loaded weapon until a cop comes and stops him. Just like I said in the beginning of our conversation: Power could be everywhere but it takes them a while to be there. Alys is stopped because of walking on the street with a gun. We on the other hand, especially in the 90's, used to be stopped for 'searching-identity checks' by official or undercover police, without any reason while walking on the streets of Diyarbakir. You don't have to do anything out of the ordinary to be able to attract police attention. I am living in Amsterdam for two years now and I can see that here power has other ways of making itself felt. The paranoia of power comes sometimes in the form of a panzer and sometimes a security camera. There is of course a difference of speed between cultures, but paranoia is the same everywhere.
Discipline Society, Control Society or Paranoia Society, whatever form power would take, our duty is to keep meeting in the gaps inbetween.
* Themroc is both the name of a French film directed by Claude Faraldo in 1973, and the name of the protagonist in the film. The dialogues in the film are made in a nonexistent language. We passionately suggest the film to those who have not yet watched it.