Since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) unexpectedly won an outright electoral victory in November 2015, activists, artists, academics, and journalists who have raised their voices against government policy have faced arrests and persecution. Spike Art Magazine spoke to artist Ahmet Öğüt about the current situation of artists in Turkey and the limits of artistic protest.
JENI FULTON: What are your thoughts on the current political situation in Turkey?
AHMET ÖĞÜT: Since the Suruç Bombing the period of violence has been escalating. We thought in June 2015 that a democratic election might be the strongest solution, but November’s election invalidated everything. We were back to a de facto one-party state and, coupled with the increasing violence and curfews, citizens have been more polarized than ever.
There have been around 58 open-ended and round-the-clock curfews in seven cities including Şırnak, Mardin, Hakkâri and my hometown Diyarbakır, affecting 1,377,000 people. Close to 200 civilians, including children, lost their lives. Education has been stopped in 1,556 schools. Therefore, unfortunately, I feel deep pessimism these days.
JF: The crackdown on protests seem to have become more overt; artists including Pınar Öğrenci and Atalay Yeni were among a group who were attacked and arrested by Turkish police in Sur, in the Kurdish district of Diyarbakır. They were participating in a silent peace march to protest sanctions on the Kurdish population.
AÖ: I first heard about the peace initiative “Barış İçin Yürüyorum (I Am Walking For Peace) from my artist friend İz Öztat when she decided to go to Bodrum and join the modest group of 70 citizens to march until Diyarbakır to show solidarity with the Kurdish population under heavy curfews. Our other artist friends Pınar Öğrenci and Atalay Yeni joined the group in Ankara. The group was attacked by the police, following which 24 people (including Pınar and Atalay) were detained and released after a few days.
When things like this start to happen, we can’t talk about civil liberties and freedom of speech anymore.
JF: What has the response among the artistic community been to the crackdowns?
AÖ: Most of us, as artists, have this desperate feeling: Do we take direct political action, or what else could be done?
There are two positions to take. Either long-term engagements, such as with Pınar Öğrenci, who is running her own artist-run space in the neighborhood of Tophane; Mars, our writer and filmmaker friend Önder Çakar who established a Film Commune along with other filmmakers in Rojava; the Yedikule Gardens Protection Initiative, a local organization involving also artists, that was formed to protect the historic urban gardens which are located alongside the old city walls; Networks of Dispossession, a research initiative that is collective data compiling and mapping the relations of capital and power in Turkey. Short-term, with direct actions, could be another way, such as the peace march or like the recent action of the open letter that 1400 academics sent.
JF: They [the academics] were condemning the state-sponsored violence, which has seen numerous artists and activists detained and threatened. “We demand the state to abandon its deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the region,” they wrote.
AÖ: This is a historic number of academics to have signed letters. It’s very significant as everyone is risking his or her own precarious position, and could be targeted, and this did happen. Immediately after the letter was published the government took significant steps towards restricting academic freedoms, followed by the arrest of 27 academics and a criminal investigation into more than a thousand academics. Many of them have received threats from ultranationalists posted on their office door, telling them to resign.
JF: It seems that as long as you make art in “private” (e.g. museums, collections) you can make whatever you like. The recent biennial included work by Armenian artists and addressed the genocide. Salt Beyoglu had an exhibition on the history of political protest. But as soon as you step out into the public sphere, you become a target.
AÖ: Yes, absolutely. Most of the cultural sponsorship in Turkey is private. Today, in Turkey, supporting culture has become a political act and everything that involves ideology or even an opinion is a matter of concern for the government. Private patrons, especially those who supported the Istanbul exhibition at the Maxxi in Rome know this, and yet they didn’t step back. This is more interesting to me than the question of how many artists are making “political” art. It’s more about how we make freedom of expression public beyond private spaces all together.
If we look back at what happened in the cultural field after, for instance, the 2013 edition of the Istanbul Biennial quietly lost its former main venue, “Antrepo,” a publicly owned customs warehouse complex—the latest edition of the biennial was spread throughout the city, but if we really pay attention we could see that almost all the locations used were privately owned spaces. If the current situation is like this and there is no space for any negotiation with the government to reclaim some of the main public venues, how can we talk about the biennial as a public event with freedom of expression that is truly public?
JF: The Maxxi exhibition “Istanbul: Passion, Fury, Joy,” on view until the end of April, is a profoundly political exhibition that takes the Gezi Park protest as a starting point. In the past, you have criticized “national exhibitions” and the utilization of artists as illustrations of politics.
AÖ: Hou Hanru, the director of Maxxi, isn't an outsider—he curated the Istanbul Biennial in 2007, he co-curated this show with a local curator, Ceren Erdem, and so the exhibition was very aware of its context. They did something very different by bringing artists and architects together equally. In my personal position, I have been trying to be very careful not to be instrumentalized and to protect my full autonomy and freedom when making any decision about participation or non-participation. But lately I started to realize having a firm solo position alone is not enough. As has been said by Liverpool fans since early 60’s “You'll Never Walk Alone." No matter how strong you are when you feel alone, many things start to fall apart. Only a collective demand could lead to a structural change.
JF: In your opinion, why are architects better activists, as you said when we were talking about the Maxxi exhibition? Why was their participation at Maxxi so significant?
AÖ: First of all, architects are more aware of their own rights and collective rights in the cities we live in. They, in fact, have had an official say when it comes to approving urban development proposals. That is why in 2013, right after the Gezi Park protests, the ruling party rushed through a bill removing The Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects’ role in approving urban development proposals.
JF: During a panel at Berlin’s Volksbühne, Julian Assange made the observation that in many states that suppress their citizens, an alternate form of resistance has developed: “Encrypt your discourse.” Do you agree with Assange’s assessment? And has this sort of linguistic practice, a vocabulary used in parallel with risky open speech, developed in Turkey?
AÖ: American journalist, computer security researcher, and hacker Jacob Appelbaum gives the same advice, which I find very important. Improving our ability to use encryption will certainly strengthen our ability to continue our work without oppressive surveillance. [I] remember when YouTube was banned in Turkey for the first time in 2007, shortly after everyone was already able to use various VPN services, securely encrypted tunnels to a server outside the country, allowing for uncensored internet access. I also remember in the 90s how people creatively installed their satellites to be able get the right signals to watch banned Kurdish TV channels.
JF: What are your thoughts on the recent closure of SALT Beyoğlu?
AÖ: Even if the reasons behind it were rather technical, as director Vasif Kortun said, it is very sad that an important venue located on such a busy public street in the heart of Istanbul can’t operate anymore. Also, one of the most important book stores, Robinson Crusoe, on the 4th floor, had to shut down its main store. This venue was not only housing exhibitions but was also hosting a few initiatives until recently including Gastronomika Project, repositioning Anatolian cuisine, and School of Urgency (Aciliyet Mektebi), which was initiated by me in the beginning and later became autonomous.
JF: Erdogan seems to be taking steps to ensure he remains [in office] for a very long time, given his attempts at electoral reform. The Guardian recently quoted him as saying that “Adolf Hitler had a good one party system going on.”
AÖ: He also once said, “In his memoirs, Christopher Columbus mentions the existence of a mosque atop a hill on the coast of Cuba,” and that he’d like to see a mosque built on the hilltop today. But actually most scholars say what Columbus said was that the “mosque” was only a metaphoric description of a natural hill, a “little hill on its summit, like a graceful mosque.” Hearing such quotes, I feel like we live in times when the interpretation of reality and fiction has become a very thin line of dark humor.
Jeni Fulton is a writer and editor based in Berlin. She is the Art/Commissioning editor for Sleek Magazine.