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Resistance to Turkey’s Protest Violence Reaches the Venice Biennale [UPDATED]

by Hrag Vartanian on June 1, 2013

Protesters at a solidarity rally in Venice during the Venice Biennale included Arsenale protest with pavilion artist Ali kazma pavilion curator emre baykal salt curator duygu demir Istanbul biennial curator fulya erdemci witte de with director Defne Ayas. The artwork poster was provided by Qiu Zhijie. (images courtesy Defne Ayas)

Protesters at a solidarity rally in Venice during the Venice Biennale included Turkish pavilion artist Ali Kazma, Turkish pavilion curator Emre Baykal, SALT curator Duygu Demir, Istanbul biennial curator Fulya Erdemci, Witte de With director Defne Ayas, and others. The artwork poster was provided by Qiu Zhijie. (photo courtesy Defne Ayas)

In the last few days, the world is watching Turkey erupt in protest after Turkish authorities responded with shocking violence to peaceful protesters trying to save a small park in central Istanbul. When the protests began five days ago on Tuesday, May 28, protesters, in a move that is somewhat reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street’s occupation of Zuccotti Park, occupied Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district.

A view of the #OccupyGezi solidarity protest in Venice's Piazza San Marco. (photo via Defne Ayas) (click to enlarge)

A view of the #OccupyGezi solidarity protest in Venice’s Piazza San Marco (photo courtesy Defne Ayas) (click to enlarge)

Then on Friday, May 31, Istanbul police raided the encampment, which included roughly 4,000 protesters, according to Amnesty International, using tear gas and compressed water. As New Yorker writer Elif Batuman explained, “ … over the course of the week, Occupy Gezi transformed from what felt like a festival, with yoga, barbecues, and concerts, into what feels like a war, with barricades, plastic bullets, and gas attacks.”

The reaction to the raid was intense, and social media quickly exploded with images of protesters protecting themselves from rubber bullets, tear gas, and water hoses. By 11 am EST that same day, five of the 11 trending terms on Twitter related to the Gezi protests, according to the Washington Post. The hashtag #OccupyGezi was born. Amnesty International issued a statement quoting John Dalhuisen, director of Europe and Central Asia Programme at the organization:

“The use of tear gas against peaceful protestors and in confined spaces where it may constitute a serious danger to health is unacceptable, breaches international human rights standards and must be stopped immediately.”

“The Turkish authorities must order police to halt any excessive use of force and urgently investigate all reports of abuse. They have a duty to ensure that people can exercise their right to free expression and assembly.”

The Guardian reported that the police action left “more than 100 people injured, several of them seriously.” The response from the Turkish media has been mediocre at best. Many protesters are shocked at the lack of media coverage, and one protester who spoke to Hyperallergic this morning on the condition of anonymity, explained:

This is what we are against — the police state they’ve created, the rising authoritarianism (most recently for being world champ for arresting journalists and students, for their arbitrary decisions to demolish parts of the city and build whatever they want, and for the ever-growing bans on civil liberties and lifestyle choices), and more importantly the lack of respect for human life regardless of what you believe in. Yesterday evening, an Istanbul court ordered the temporary suspension of the project to uproot trees in the park, so clearly there was no park left to ‘occupy,’ but the police didn’t retreat. They kept firing tear gas to the wounded, to the hospitals, and gassed people from helicopters. This is a government that turns off surveillance cameras to hide excessive violence and use jammers to halt communication. They might shut down internet soon. Many high schools, cafes, hotels around Taksim [Gezi Park] hosted the wounded. They all share their wi-fi [connection] so that we can communicate. And Turkish media groups are simply pathetic. All the news are coming from outside of the country. The anger is now spreading to other cities. This is what it has become. And it’s growing.

A view of the #OccupyGezi solidarity protest in San Marco's Square in Venice. (image courtesy Defne Ayas)

A view of the #OccupyGezi solidarity protest in Venice’s Piazza San Marco (photo courtesy Defne Ayas)

Solidarity at the Venice Biennale

By early Saturday, curators and artists attending the opening day of this year’s Venice Biennale, many of them Turkish, organized a solidarity protest at noon in the city’s Piazza San Marco. Hyperallergic reached out to one of the protest attendees, curator Defne Ayas, who sent us images via Twitter and email from the large event. We asked her to describe the scene, but we have not received a response at the time of publication.

Artist ???? holds a "Resist" sign during today's protest at the Venice Biennale. (photo courtesy Defne Ayas)

A protester holds a “Resist” sign during today’s protest at the Venice Biennale. (photo courtesy Defne Ayas)

Some of the participants in the Venice protest included artist Ali Kazma, the official artist of the Biennale’s Turkish pavilion, Turkish pavilion curator Emre Baykal, SALT (a contemporary art space in Beyoğlu) curator Duygu Demir, Istanbul biennial curator Fulya Erdemci, Witte de With director Defne Ayas, and others. The artwork poster, according to Ayas’s short message to us, was provided by Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie. It is worth noting that the theme of Kazma’s project for the Turkish pavilion is appropriately “Resistance.”

Hyperallergic contributor Stephen Truax arrived late to the protest and explained what he believes happened to the rally, which appeared to be only one of many in the area. “I saw the protest at 2pm,” he said via email. “It was right in front of the Arsenale, but it was quickly dispatched [sic] by the carabinieri.” Our attempts to confirm the report have so far been unsuccessful.

New York’s #OccupyGezi Solidarity Protest

A sign at the #OccupyGezi solidarity protest in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park on Saturday, June 1. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

A sign at the #OccupyGezi solidarity protest in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park on Saturday, June 1 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

As the protests in Turkey, which had since spread to the cities of Ankara and Izmir, continued, Hyperallergic received an email early Saturday morning from a New York–based Turkish-American artist, Hakan Topal, who explained that a solidarity protest would be taking place at Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of the Occupy movement, at noon on Saturday, June 1.

A general of the #OccupyGezi solidarity protest in Zuccotti Park. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

A general view of the #OccupyGezi solidarity protest in Zuccotti Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

An ad hoc group of protest organizers, with some support from factions of Occupy, released a press release announcing their solidarity with the protesters in Turkey. The statement began:

To The Member of the Press, International Human Rights Organizations, and the People of New York City,

We are artists, students, intellectuals and citizens of New York City. Together with supporters of Occupy Wall Street, we are here in Zuccotti Park to show solidarity with our friends and brothers and sisters who are occupying Gezi Parki in Istanbul. This is a peaceful event. Our goal is to attract public attention to the protests in Istanbul Gezi Parki and the consequent police brutality of the Erdogan/AKP government!

By 12:15am, roughly 250 protesters — though some reported as many as 1,000 —were gathered in Zuccotti Park. The vast majority of protesters appeared to be Turkish or Turkish-speaking, and the dozens of signs were a mix of Turkish and English; the chants were also a mix of both languages. I approached two men who were carrying flags that were unfamiliar to me, and I asked them what they represented. “It is our old high school in Istanbul,” one man, who appeared to be in his late 30s, replied.

Some of the signs were aggressively anti-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan as he is universally being blamed for the violence in Istanbul yesterday. One sign, held by a middle-aged woman, went so far as to equate Erdogan with Hitler.

Some of the signs at the #OccupyGezi protest at Zuccotti Park. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Some of the signs at the #OccupyGezi protest at Zuccotti Park, including a “Erdogan = Hitler” and “The King Is Naked (in Turkish)” signs on the left (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The group looked more affluent and older than your typical Occupy crowd, but it was also clear there were some Occupy-affiliated individuals also joining the protest.

It is already Sunday, June 2, in Turkey, and protesters continue to scuffle with police and resist being dispersed. Erdogan and his government remain defiant, refusing to bend. Reuters reports today that:

Erdogan has called for an immediate end to the protests and has said his government will investigate claims that the police have used excessive force. But he remained defiant.

“If this is about holding meetings, if this is a social movement, where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one million from my party,” he said in a televised speech.

Hyperallergic received a note that another solidarity protest is slated for noon on Sunday, June 2, in Zuccotti Park.

Hyperallergic asked Topal what he thought today’s Zuccotti Park protest accomplished, what people’s reactions were, and what was on the agenda for tomorrow event. He replied:

Many people came to the protests to show solidarity with the Turkish resistance. It was a very diverse group with lots of Turkish Americans. Although they appeared to have slightly different agendas, eventually they were fully integrated with the Occupy friends. OWS prepared brilliant banners in support with #OccupyGezi.

Tomorrow, we are going to meet there at 12pm. This time, we are hoping that we will be a bit prepared as people know what to expect. We kindly asked people to use English chants and slogans to communicate with the American public better.

Occupy Wall Street comrades will come in force. Hopefully the weather will be OK.

Addendum: During my time at the New York protest, I noticed a few images of Ataturk, which suggested to me that some of the protesters were Kemalist, which is a secular form of Turkish nationalism that professes the supremacy of the Turkish language and culture over the country’s minority languages and cultures. One man was even wearing a Turkish flag with an image of Ataturk on it as a cape. Now, I hear from a Turkish-speaking acquaintance that a number of Turkish chants were very Kemalist in nature, including “We are all Ataturk’s soldiers,” ”We are all Turks,” “How happy to be a Turk,” and “We need to return to Ataturk’s way.”

UPDATED: Hyperallergic was finally able to speak with curator Defne Ayas, who responded to our questions about yesterday’s protest and provided more images from the rally:

A view of the #OccupyGezi rally in Piazza San Marco on Saturday, June 1. (photo via Defne Ayas)

A view of the #OccupyGezi rally in Piazza San Marco on Saturday, June 1. (all UPDATED photos via Defne Ayas and Selda Asal

Q: What was the mood at the #OccupyGezi solidarity protest at the Venice Biennale and how did it come together?

A: The mood of the protest was fiery. We all wanted to be in Istanbul but were in Venice, so we gathered not only raise awareness vis a vis the international art world but to stand in solidarity with our friends. About 100 of us, I would say. We were all up until 4 am in the morning watching news live from our friends’ [social media] feeds such as that of artist Asli Cavusoglu or curator Vasif Kortun as well as international press, as local [media] wasn’t pushing out any info, preparing for the morning by inviting our peers, printing banners, asking everyone to bring pots and pans to make noise as if we were in Istanbul. Qiu Zhijie made half of the banners!

“We stand by our country, we stand united against the state violence and injustices of this man the Turkish Prime Minister,” was the main message that we kept reciting and chanting.

Q: What was the timeline of the protest and the action?

A: We met at 10 am at San Marco for about an hour and then we all went back to our “media desks” or rather wifi zones. We gathered again at 2pm at the Arsenale, and we were there at the gate for 40 min. We wanted to go to the Turkish pavilion but all our accreditations had expired, and except for a few diehards nobody wanted to push through the security of Arsenale so we all went to the Gianrdini via Gribaldi and concluded there. The Museum of Everything cafe became the final destination for media distribution.

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Curator Defne Ayas (center wearing sunglasses) as part of the protest

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  • Ar Zu

    ps. this is not to be published as comment but FYI, I think the protester holding the “Resist” sign is Osman Erden, the president of the Istanbul Art Critics Association

  • Ar Zu

    I was a bit taken back by the addendum. I thought Kemal Ataturk was a general at the Ottoman Empire, who later seceded from and overthrew the monarchy, lead a war of independence against Allied Forces during ww1, established the modern Turkish Republic as a democracy and became its first president. I’d figure any reference to Kemalism would be in reference to resistance to autocracy as he did with the monarchy. I’d be curious to see the citation that equals Kemalism with supremacy of the Turkish language and culture over the country’s minority languages and cultures. That seems to be a misinterpretation.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      No, Ataturk is the founder of Kemalism. The term is derived from his middle name, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

      • Ar Zu

        I understand the term comes from his name. My understanding of Kemalism doesn’t overlap with the description in addendum. I was wondering where the citation of that particular definition comes from.

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